Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Placeholders on Capitalism as Impersonal Domination

For those who haven’t yet updated their links, I wanted to mention that Ryan/Aless’ massthink is now back online after a brief hiatus, recharged and with a flurry of fantastic posts. The most recent post asks the question “What Is Capitalism?”, a question that Ryan/Aless answers using a fairly conventional form of Marxist theory:

Capitalism (let’s not mystify it) is simply an economic system where a group of people (the capitalists, the bourgeois) owns the means (i.e. the raw materials, the machines, the factories, land, etc., i.e. the investment money used to buy these, i.e. capital) of production (the process by which a society produces its economic goods) while the rest do not. The rest-the workers, the proletariat-have only their skills, their talents, their abilities, i.e. themselves. As such, in order to survive, in order to buy the goods (since they are, after all, also human beings who have needs) produced in the production process (managed, since they own the means of production, by the capitalists), the workers sell their skills, their talents, their abilities-labor (hence the designation laborers)-to the capitalists.

Ryan/Aless then goes on to unfold a notion of contradiction/internal tension that involves pointing to how labour differs from other means of production:

But man is not a commodity. He was not produced by the economic system; he (unlike a piece of bread, or a table, or computers) was not a product of capitalism. Sure, his labor might have been trained, honed by the economic system (through the educational ISA, the workplace, the family)-but not even his whole labor at that. Some of his talents, his abilities, he inherently has, i.e. he already has labor even before he enters the economy. More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used, some commodity to be exchanged (or are we?). Yet, in capitalism, by virtue of the wage, that precisely is what he is: something bought and sold, i.e. a commodity. And if he can be bought and sold, someone must be doing the buying and the selling: the capitalists. The worker, then, (since bought) must be owned by someone (more accurately: something): the capitalist system itself. Man, paid for, is a MoP owned by capitalism.

I unfortunately don’t have time to pick up adequately on this point now, but I want to suggest (1) that this particular narrative of what capitalism is has been historically very important in the development both of movements for the humanisation of capitalism and for the political self-assertion of the working class, but (2) this form of theory tacitly identifies capitalism with a particular form of group domination – with personal relations of domination – in a way that may compromise our ability to grasp the distinctive qualitative characteristics of capitalism, and may particularly impede our ability to understand capitalism as a contradictory social form.

Speaking very, very briefly here, Ryan/Aless’ identification of capitalism with relations of personal domination (the domination of workers by a group of capitalists) suggests that capitalism as a social form will be overcome by the abolition of this concrete social relation. In the form presented above, it also suggests that the essential contradiction is between social relations that are conceptualised as arbitrary or artificial, on the one hand, and an ontological property of labourers, on the other (“More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used…” – italics mine) – so the critical standpoint of this form of theory (the standpoint or position from which the critique is being offered) tacitly aligns itself with something more natural, against an artificial social. This form of theory thus breaches an immanent frame of analysis, positioning the theorist as someone who has access to a “natural” perspective from which the social can be recognised as a contingent and arbitrary human creation. At the same time – and to step outside the issues thematised by Ryan/Aless’ post – I would suggest that this form of theory leaves unclear how to grasp peculiar qualitative characteristics of capitalist society that seem at best arbitrarily related to the class relation posited here as central: the dynamism of capitalist production, the specific (and, I would argue, noneconomic) qualitative characteristics of capitalist production, including its unique “instrumental” character, the resonance of distinctive forms of subjectivity characteristic of the capitalist era, including forms of subjectivity constitutive of specific kinds of oppositional movements, etc. (I say all this very much as a placeholder, with full awareness that there would be no reason for anyone to take the point seriously as formulated here).

I mention all this, even though I don’t have the time to develop the point in any meaningful way here, as it’s occurred to me that it might not be clear that some of the theoretical positions I’ve been unfolding here recently – on abstraction, counterfactuals, and immanent theory in particular – are intended to unfold an alternative conceptualisation of capitalism. One that understands capitalism in terms of impersonal forms of domination (within which personal forms of domination may then be situated) that constitute an unintended, nonlinear dynamic of historical transformation – a dynamic characterised by contradictory pressures for the dissolution and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in particular concrete forms. Although I cannot develop this point here (gestures have been made in earlier posts), the point of this kind of theoretical approach – of redefining capitalism so as to grasp its impersonal social dimensions – is both to open up to a theory of capitalism many of the salient qualitative characteristics of capitalist society – including forms of subjectivity and practice that point beyond this social form – and to avoid a form of critique that tacitly replicates the classical liberal philosophical distinction between artifice and nature, by explaining how capitalism itself generates this distinction as a moment in its own cycle of reproduction. I would argue that such a move is required for a genuinely immanent critical theory of capitalism – one that voices its critique in terms of the contradictions within capitalism, rather than as a contradiction between capitalism and something else (whether natural or social) – and that this approach can also begin to help us make sense of some of the historical dynamics that have been stacked against movements that articulate their opposition to capitalism in terms outlined in Ryan/Aless’ post.

I say all of this as a placeholder in the most emphatic sense: Ryan/Aless can and should dismiss what I’ve written here as ungrounded – or, if feeling particularly generous, he could perhaps advance me some time over the next few months to see whether I can develop the point in more adequate detail. 🙂

14 responses to “Placeholders on Capitalism as Impersonal Domination

  1. Ryan/Aless June 12, 2007 at 6:19 am

    Thanks for the mention, NP, and, more importantly, for pointing out things I haven’t thought about regarding my definition, which really comes from a mentor’s reading of Lukac’s History and Class Consciousness in which he points out, among other things, that capitalism is not some natural thing (which is how we come to think about it when its is reified) and thus, is a system that can be changed. Come to think of it, that’s a really quite humanistic reading (which some would argue, Marx was). But I definitely do not find appealing the artificial v natural opposition that, as you point out, may tend to follow the definition I’ve outlined. Here I would make use of Deleuze’s concept of univocal ontology to break that. I guess the (preliminary) definition I have betrays my need to study more in-depth Althusser, esp. Reading Capital. (I’ve read him, but not enough.) Then there’s also the third book of Capital itself that I’ve barely touched upon. In that part of Marx’s thought, one can argue that Marx himself was moving away from humanistic tendencies in focusing on (rather than the capitalists) capitalism (as a system) itself. So Marx may actually have been doing a sort of immanent critique himself. Of course, I also look forward to a “more immanent” definition that I hope you’ll have a chance to work on over the next few weeks. (As for me, I’m gonna need a lot of time before I’ll get to update that definition–so I hope you get to do it. :-)) Even as I move to a more immanent way of thinking about capitalism, however, I would not want to dilute the fact that some people in society do own the means of production that others do not–which leads to all kinds of exploitation (Can we say maybe, like the molecular in relationship to the molar, that the power relations in society or the system itself is not willingly “controlled” by capitalists, but that it congeals in their hands, allowing them to exploit others?). This, I’m sure, has a place in an immanent definition.

  2. N Pepperell June 12, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    If you’re taking suggestions at all, rather than Althusser, I’d suggest Postone instead – if you’ve been reading Lukacs, you might find his take on Lukacs (and the Frankurt School appropriation of Lukacs) interesting. I disagree with the work in specific (but complex) ways as a theory in its own right, but my reading of Marx has been heavily influenced by it, and I think it’s probably the most productive reading of Marx out there, if your interest is in contemporary critique, rather than just in Marxism as an historical movement. Postone does interpret Marx’s Capital as an immanent critical theory – with a particularly nuanced reading of what this might mean for contemporary critique. Sayer’s Marx’s Method is also good – although I think it actually makes the sort of error I was pointing out above, just in a more sophisticated way (actually, many forms of Marxist theory do).

    I feel a bit bad, incidentally, picking up on this point in relation to your post: I’ve just been meaning to write something on the issue for a while, and have always been too busy when someone else has written something I could play off against. I actually think this is a really common issue – even among theorists who programmatically describe themselves as engaging in immanent theory: there is often actually a tacit concept of nature (or an “outside” or “margin”) that serves as the standpoint of critique in the background.

    Theorists seem to be very reluctant to take seriously the question of what it might mean for a social system to produce the conditions for its critique and transformation. Very common “unmasking” moves – where, for example, particular values are debunked by demonstrating the role they play in the reproduction of capitalism – end critique too soon, from the standpoint of the kind of approach I’m trying to outline: the issue becomes one of taking seriously, with Benjamin, that transformative political action involves brushing history against the grain – recognising that something (an ideal, a form of practice, a means of producing material wealth) may in fact have arisen historically precisely as a moment in the reproduction of a form of domination – but also recognising that such things can also represent alienated historical achievements: things that can be torn out of the context in which they originated, and consciously seized and turned to other, more emancipatory purposes.

    This reorients the emphasis of the critique – away from unmasking (although an analysis of the reproduction of the existing social form remains important) – and toward an understanding of the way in which a particular social configuration generates qualitatively specific forms of perception, thought and practice that can sit in tension with the configuration within which they arose. The result is something more robust and more self-consistent on a philosophical level (so that it becomes possible for the theory to “live up” to ideals of immanence and social specificity, rather than constantly behaving as though the object of critique – capitalism – is somehow socially determined, while the theorist mysteriously sits outside this process, diagnosing the social but without an apparently social position of their own), without having to move to the notion that history operates according to some emancipatory logic (the Geist) and also without following Lukacs in the assumption that the proletariat is some kind of world-historical subject (and therefore somehow possesses an ontologically or epistemologically privileged perspective on social reality).

    While notions of philosophical consistency may sound like minor concerns when we’re talking about how a theory might contribute to political practice, there is a strong practical implication: the only way a critical social theory can consistently be both immanent and self-reflexive is by identifying an immanent potential for transformation generated by the context being analysed – this is what it means for a theory to capture, self-reflexively, itself as a potential of its own context. This means that concerns of philosophical consistency, and concerns of practical efficacy, coincide: self-reflexivity is possible only to the extent that the theory can adequately account for the potential for emancipatory transformation.

    Theoretical moves “outside” capitalism – to the margins, to nature, to some quasi-automatic logic of history, or to a world-historical subject – by definition haven’t captured an immanent potential for transformation. They tacitly thematise capitalism as one-dimensional and linear in its development. I both don’t find this historically plausible (I think it’s hard to make sense of historical developments within a capitalist context if you don’t conceptualise capitalism as internally generative of contradictions), and I also think such an approach tends in a pessimistic direction, because its standpoint of critique doesn’t ever actually connect with capitalism itself, and is thus always struggling to grasp concrete transformative potentials.

    Sorry for the disorganised associations here – I’m a bit under the weather, and not thinking very systematically at the moment. But just wanted to explain that I don’t think you’ve made some personal error, or that there was anything wrong with your post as a representation of what has often been a very sophisticated and politically important variant of Marxism – you just happened to touch on something I’ve been wanting to write about, and to do so clearly enough that it was easy to think my thoughts in relation to it.

  3. Joseph Kugelmass June 14, 2007 at 7:19 am


    Since you (correctly, I think) identify R/A’s post with the fundamentals of Marxist economic theory, I have a couple of interrogations that derive from the larger body of Marxist and post-Marxist thought.

    First of all, the division between “natural” and “artificial” relations (or modes of being) is certainly evoked by the Rousseauean “man was not born…” which recalls “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” However, one could read R/A’s statement as something like “man is born undetermined, and everywhere he is overdetermined.” In other words, the narrative of socialization could involve a loss of self-determination and possibility, which are modes of pure thought, rather than a loss of Nature.

    The impersonality of capitalism is an outgrowth of its structures of domination. You are right to point out that the “personal” touch in capitalism is basically ridiculous — who can take seriously the attempts to “personalize” domination through such figures as Donald Trump, Tyra Banks, or Bill Gates? That said, R/A’s formulation (“Man is a means of production”) is highly impersonal, insofar as it reduces human beings to their assigned function. I am certain that Marx understood the impersonal nature of production and labor — that was the basis for a legitimate class struggle, classes being the result of the deprivation of real individuality.

    I did notice that R/A seemed unconcerned with the problems of consumption and desire that obsess other thinkers (e.g. Zizek), but perhaps that can be excused on the grounds that only in a few highly industrialized nations is “excess desire” an issue even worth discussing.

  4. N Pepperell June 14, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Hey Joe! Good to see you around and about – exams behind you?

    A couple of random points (and I may have to ask some patience for what may be somewhat disorganised points – I’ve been working through the night, and am just now winding down and taking a bit of a break, so I’m slightly bleary…).

    First: one issue under discussion is whether Marx is actually offering an economic theory. He’s often understood to be doing so, but this isn’t actually how I read him. I read him as an attempt to offer a social critique of political economic theory, one that is making an argument that certain things that come to be naturalised in capitalism as forms of production and distribution, actually can’t be explained in relation to these economic functions – that the kind of “economy” we have, and the forms of perception and thought associated with that economy, only actually make sense once production and distribution are re-situated within a broader social theory that can then explain the qualitative characteristics of production and distribution (and other things – science, technology, discourses surrounding such things – I’m being very abbreviated here – the point takes some time to develop in any adequate way) in terms of the positions these social practices come to occupy within a distinctive network of social relations.

    One of the things I think Marx is doing is criticising political economy for believing that this has something to do with “economics” – so, rather than offering his own competing economic theory, Marx is, I think, doing a kind of immanent embedding of political economic discourse – criticising it, in Hegelian fashion, by showing how this discourse could only ever arise and appear plausible in the sort of broader social context that Marx’s theory seeks to analyse.

    In terms of the nature/artifice issue – first a side point that, again, to develop this point clearly, I’d actually have to go into more detail about the particular qualitative form taken by the nature/artifice distinction in many affirmative and critical theories. I’ll leave that aside for the moment, though, because I think it’s incidental to the question you ask about R/A’s position, which is, basically, whether the position requires a “hard” concept of Nature-with-a-capital-N, or whether it could just be seen as a kind of protest against a particular form of social determination. I suspect from R/A’s reaction to my post that my reading was probably accurate, but it actually wouldn’t matter if someone were to follow the line you suggest: what interests me is not specifically whether there is some hard concept of Nature lurking in the background (although I think such a concept often does lurk), but rather that the standpoint from which capitalism is being criticised is not immanent to capitalism itself – that the analysis is tacitly asymmetric – offering a determinate social analysis of capitalism, but not of the ways in which capitalism generates determinate potentials for its own transformation. Instead, the critical standpoint is tacitly outside what it is criticising – in this case, by pointing to a tacit notion of nature (by accusing capitalism of forcing workers to do unnatural things, things for which they aren’t born); but a similar point could be made of critiques from the “margins”, searches for an “outside”, appeals to the notion of an abstract “rupture”, etc.

    Of course, there may in fact be outsides – this is, essentially, an empirical question. But my position would be that the search for an outside isn’t necessary (and also isn’t, in my reading, what Marx himself was trying to theorise) – that we can actually theorise capitalism as a self-contradictory social form, that generates determinate forms of social constraint that are experienced as social constraint precisely because that same context also generates potentials for something other and better. This form of theory is able to remain immanent and self-reflexive, because the analysis of capitalism itself provides an explanation of why critical forms of perception and thought would be likely to emerge in a capitalist context.

    You’re right that I’m in part criticising approaches that try to “personalise” capitalism by viewing it as a particular form of group domination – not because particular groups aren’t advantaged by the system, but because an analysis of group domination doesn’t explain many of the qualitative features that characterise capitalism as a distinctive social form. Capitalism constrains through more than inequality – and class domination itself doesn’t account for the instrumental character of the social form – for the way in which “man is a means of production”. So part of my argument was that, by defining capitalism in terms of personal domination, R/A might not actually be able to grasp or account for some of the very features to which he was nevertheless pointing – that grasping these things may require a different kind of theoretical apparatus, one that can certainly discuss class domination, but that is centred more on “structural” elements of the social form. I’m certain that Marx understood the impersonal character of capitalism, as well – I’m just not sure that all forms of Marxist theory do… 😉 And I think R/A’s post suggested some of the ways that common forms of Marxist theory can begin to go astray.

    I don’t, though, understand the impersonal dimension of the context solely in relation to reducing human beings to their assigned function (again, the metaphor here suggests personal domination: who is doing the “assigning”? can we come up with terms that better express capitalism as, in a way, the domination of collective practice over people, perhaps?). My personal position is that capitalism is best defined in terms of the collective, nonconscious, unintended acting out of a pattern of historical transformation – when I speak of impersonal forms of domination, this is what I’m referring to – the domination of capital (understood as a dynamic structure unfolding over time, via the mediation of various forms of concrete and personal social institutions, practices and forms of perception and thought) over people. I see this historical dynamic as internally contradictory – I think it constitutes the potential for its own overcoming, although I can’t make a full argument for how I think this might work here. But because I see capitalism in this way, I don’t think we need to reach “outside” to explain the existence of critique or the potential for transformation – I think we can explain such things immanently, via the same theoretical approach that also explains how capitalism is generated and reproduced.

    Sorry to plod on and on with this post – I am wordy enough when rested; when tired… it gets worse… 😉 I also apologise for what this post leaves hanging – and I’ll reiterate that I am specifically not singling R/A out for critique here – he just had the misfortune of being the first person to post in a very common, and often productive, line of Marxist theory, after I had decided I really should write something on the issue. I’m concerned that he not feel targeted for what I really think was a very clear expression of a line of theory he was trying to summarise, rather than necessarily advocate.

  5. Ryan/Aless June 14, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Thanks, NP. I’ll make sure to read the Postone book. Yah, I do not like the idea of the critic sitting outside of what he is critiquing either, as though s/he was occupying some position exempt from the conditions critiqued. I guess Foucault’s concept of discourse would be helpful here? But I’m not sure this necessarily results from Marxist theorists thinking of capitalism in terms of two main groups/classes: the capitalists and the proletarians, treating them as agents, as it were. Can a critic, for example, make comments or theorize about social conditions or the processes that lead up to it, while at the same time knowing that he is perhaps implicit in the system? Maybe I’m being naive here, but I think so (as of now, at least; I might change my mind later :-)). That is why I think Gramsci’s contribution to the Marxist concept of ideology is very significant. Then again, maybe it’s not enough, it’s still too naive. Maybe it does give the critic/intellectual a privileged position over what he is critiquing. I haven’t made up my mind on that. If that does happen, then yes, I agree that it has implications to the practical application of the theory. Context definitely is very important.

    Anyway, I hope you get to right a more in-depth post about this. I definitely look forward to reading that.

    Joseph, I like the formulation “man is born undetermined, but is everywhere overdetermined,” i.e. he (upon entrance to the capitalist economic system; but not just because of this) loses the ability to self-determination. Man is a MoP is definitely an impersonal formulation, esp. when I point out (as Lukacs has) toward the end of that post that man is owned–not by capitalists–but by capitalism itself. Still this formulation (originating from Lukacs and which has become historically influential) does not stress enough, I think, the immanent processes that NP talks about (and which, I think, would be the same way that Deleuze would talk about capitalism). Regarding desire, I had not been able to think about that. The post was intended to start delineating the complex “thing” that is capitalism, and (thanks to your comment) hopefully in future posts I’ll be able to articulate something about desire’s role in capitalism.

    I’m glad your comps went well! I’m in the process of reviewing for mine; hence the notes that I publish in my blog. 🙂 And yes, NP: most posts in my blog are summaries. I don’t seem to know how to make up my mind, so I never know if I’m really forwarding a particular view or, by articulating them in some eloquent manner, trying to understand them myself. But discussions like this are definitely helpful in shaping my own point of view.

  6. N Pepperell June 14, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    There are a few separable issues (all of which I discussed, without being clear enough how I distinguished them, so any confusion derives from my own post): one is the issue of whether capitalism can be adequately conceptualised in terms of class relations; another is the issue of immanent critique; a third is the issue of whether the theorist’s implicatedness in capitalism is a problem for critique.

    The issue of whether capitalism can be conceptualised in terms of class relations is the most complex – among other reasons, because I suspect there’s been a bit of an historical shift in the concept of “class” in social theory over time. So currently, if a theorist is talking about “class domination”, they probably *mean* the domination of some group over other groups – they *mean* personal domination, and class categories are understood in some way to map onto demographic groups or populations. Many of the debates in the sociological literature about “false consciousness” and such derive from this understanding of “class” – as attempts to answer the question of why particular demographic groups don’t seem to be behaving in accordance with their “interests”, etc. – I’m sure you’ve read theorists worrying over this kind of thing.

    This isn’t, however, the only way to understand “class” (and isn’t, I would suggest, how Marx uses the term). Class can also be understood as a “structural” category – as a descriptor of a particular perspective generated within a network of social relations. So a particular constellation of forms of perception and thought – for example, the perception that capitalism is essentially a mode of distribution of goods on the market – might be reflective of a “petty bourgeois” class perspective (reflective of the moment within capitalism in which petty bourgeois enterprises engage with the reproduction of capital), without this claim actually saying anything about how actual empirical small shopowners think about capitalism.

    I would argue that a structural understanding of class might be compatible (depending on the exact claims it makes) with an adequate theory of capitalism, but that a demographic conception of class is probably missing something very fundamental – or at least not providing the theoretical categories required to allow us to understand something really fundamental. So in a sense my objection isn’t so much to class analysis, as to what discussions of class have come to mean in sociological analyses over the course of the 20th century. The way you framed your post specifically defined capitalism as an economic system where “a group of people (the capitalists, the bourgeois) owns the means (i.e. the raw materials, the machines, the factories, land, etc., i.e. the investment money used to buy these, i.e. capital) of production (the process by which a society produces its economic goods) while the rest do not” – thus, class in the sense of personal domination. A more structural account would define capitalism as a system characterised by the domination of capital over people – a form of structural domination that then makes available certain structural perspectives, some of which Marx tries to grasp in class categories… Confusing enough? 😉

    My position would be that some of the qualitative characteristics you mention yourself in your post – references to the instrumental character of work under capitalism, to the subsumption of labour under an endless process of capital accumulation – are actually very difficult to explain if you stick to categories of personal domination. As stated here, of course, this is simply an assertion – I’d need to develop the argument a bit more to explain what I mean, and I’m too tired 🙂

    But, gesturally, Marx is trying – like Hegel – to unfold a theory of why things *appear as they do* – the qualitative form of the forms of perception and thought characteristic of capitalism are not, for Marx, “mere” ideology – it’s not adequate to unmask and debunk them: he thinks these forms of thought are necessary expressions of how capitalism is enacted in social practice – they are non-arbitrary, and the analysis has to capture this. Approaches that focus on the domination of a group of capitalists are able to talk about how this class benefits from various forms of perception and thought, but not about why these specific forms of perception and thought should be prevalent – why not, for example, erect their personal domination based on some theory of divine right, etc. Apologies that this is much too compressed – it’s a difficult thing to illustrate in a short space…

    In terms of the issue of immanent critique: it is actually possible to construct an immanent critique based on a framework that understands capitalism in terms of personal domination – this is, in effect, what classical Marxism – the Marxism that believes that capitalism will overcome itself quasi-automatically, by socialising the means of production and generating the proletariat as the universal class – does. The problem here is not so much that the theory isn’t immanent, as that the society that would be realised by such a movement looks (from the standpoint of the kind of theory I would do) more like a very pure form of capitalism (a society in which labour has become central), rather than an emancipatory overcoming of capitalism. The theoretical approach doesn’t provide good categories for grasping political and social dimensions of emancipation that are not directly related to the socialisation of the means of production. To grasp those things, I would suggest, you need a different kind of immanent theory.

    What you often get instead, though, is not a different kind of immanent theory, but instead something like a theory of capitalism that sits alongside some different theory of emancipation, which is the pattern I was discussing above. This move away from immanence is to some degree an historical shift, reflecting the discomfort of recent theory with notions of the proletariat as the world-historical subject, and with notions of capitalism possessing a linear historical logic. I’m suggesting that there is a way to maintain the immanent nature of the critique, even if the theorist shares a discomfort with world-historical subjects and linear historical logics – but this requires categories that reach beyond notions of personal domination.

    In terms of whether it’s problematic that the theorist be implicated in what they’re criticising – that’s an easy one 🙂 The whole point of an immanent critique is that the critique can explain itself as a potential generated by the society being criticised. So, we’re all implicated – but this is precisely why critique is possible.

    Sorry for the condensed content here – it’s been a rough day, but the discussion is interesting and useful to me, and I do apologise for not being able to outline things more adequately.

  7. Joseph Kugelmass June 15, 2007 at 9:18 am


    It’s great to resume these conversations; exams are in fact over, and (aside from some grading) I’m enjoying a ten day vacation in Hawaii.

    I’d like to return to the image of the Mobius strip, from some of your earlier posts, because of the wonderful capacity of a Mobius strip to have both only one side (a side, as it were, constructed by the same surface), and an inside and an outside, without which there would be nothing extraordinary about it.

    What may appear to be methodological differences between more and less immanent critiques might be the product of unhelpful terminology. In other words, capitalism has to generate its own outside, which functions as an “outside” in all the normal ways: it makes critique possible, it is differently ordered, it is highly personal, and so on. In the course of any interaction between an employer and an employee, there will be a large number of personal elements that are (at least initially) in excess of the obtaining structural relations of capital.

    By the same token, just because Rousseauean, Emersonian, or ecological theories are actually generated from within capitalism, doesn’t mean that they can’t be valuable and revolutionary. It’s just essential to remember that they are in a relationship with the status quo, rather than thinking of them as somehow both effective and “uncorrupted.”

    In other words, I can understand rejecting the idea of a “pure” outside, but a dialectical outside is actually the destiny of immanent critique.

    This idea of the immanent “outside” may help me articulate why I continue to put stock in the idea of a universalized proletariat. The way in which we understand labor and its oppressive effects is determined by the experience of alienation, which puts the laborer “outside” his effort and produce. At the moment when existence becomes pure labor, the laborer enters fully into the work, at which point it is no longer experienced as life-denying, but rather becomes a consummation inseparable from the rest of life.

    I really like how clearly you’ve articulated the structural theory of capitalism in terms of the domination of capital. Money is master, but it does not have unified effects. The theory of the class structure is justified by the fact that the factory owner is not dominated by money in the same way as the factory worker; any other way of putting the issue seems to me to risk making out both to be equal victims, which would be massively unfair. Thus the distinction between the way money “thinks,” and the way a given person thinks, becomes significant. A person who holds egalitarian, libertarian ideals but acts in a structurally-determined way can turn revolutionary. A person who believes that capitalism is already “equitable” could very possibly act against their own interests by remaining unconscious of the iniquity of capital. Shouldn’t we worry about people betraying their own interests as a result of ideology, just as we worry about people self-destructing from addictions or mental illness? (There is no reason for this to be a project of condescension; it can be a project of political action in partnership, and intellectual exchange.)

    It’s a great point that not all Marxist descriptions of capitalism adequately account for capital. I would actually link this to Marx’s rejection of “Spirit” in Hegel, a rejection I can’t support. That’s why the psychoanalytic accounts of Spirit/thought and the death drive, as well as Weber’s account of “religious” capitalism, are so useful. I join Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, among others, in believing that the problem of capital can’t be solved until we grapple with the complexities of Spirit.

  8. Ryan/Aless June 15, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    “I would argue that a structural understanding of class might be compatible (depending on the exact claims it makes) with an adequate theory of capitalism, but that a demographic conception of class is probably missing something very fundamental – or at least not providing the theoretical categories required to allow us to understand something really fundamental. [. . .] The way you framed your post specifically defined capitalism as an economic system where “a group of people (the capitalists, the bourgeois) owns the means (i.e. the raw materials, the machines, the factories, land, etc., i.e. the investment money used to buy these, i.e. capital) of production (the process by which a society produces its economic goods) while the rest do not” – thus, class in the sense of personal domination. A more structural account would define capitalism as a system characterised by the domination of capital over people – a form of structural domination that then makes available certain structural perspectives, some of which Marx tries to grasp in class categories . . .” –This, I think, is the heart of the matter, and while I do like the structural account of class you give, I’m not willing to completely give up the idea of personal domination.

    Joseph in the next comment, I believe, makes roughly the same point when he says that “Money is master, but it does not have unified effects. The theory of the class structure is justified by the fact that the factory owner is not dominated by money in the same way as the factory worker; any other way of putting the issue seems to me to risk making out both to be equal victims, which would be massively unfair.”

    I’m trying to find a way to reconcile these two views and, well, as of now, all I can think of (putting it in Deleuzian terms) is: capitalism as a system is structurally defined by capital, it is molecular that way, an emergent structure, but perhaps the system uses “agents,” or the conflicts inherent in the system are fought out by “agents,” i.e. certain structural elements congeal in roles played by certain groups, such as “the capitalists” and “the proletarians”? Hence what is a structural domination is seen as personal domination. I don’t know. I need time to reflect about this. 🙂

  9. N Pepperell June 16, 2007 at 2:50 am

    Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.

    Joe –

    Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.

    I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.

    (At the risk of introducing a confusing aside: Habermas is an interesting outlier here. He does offer a critique from the standpoint of “nature” – albeit a “nature” that has realised itself historically. His theory, though, actually is immanent – it’s just not immanent to capitalism. Instead, he takes the somewhat novel approach of positioning capitalism as immanent to something else. Basically, Habermas reacts to the impasse of the first generation Frankfurt School theorists, by concluding that theories immanent to capitalism are dead ends – he accepts the first-generation Frankfurt School verdict that capitalism has become one-dimensional, and therefore that any contradiction will need to be between capitalism and something else.

    Above, I’ve suggested that when theorists talk about the contradiction between capitalism and “something else”, they generally break the immanent frame – this is because theorists who do this usually have a theory of the determinate character of capitalism, but don’t actually offer a theory of any determinate relationship between their “something else” and capitalism. Habermas avoids this problem by changing the boundaries of the immanent frame. So his critique is actually immanent to a theory of rationalisation – understood as a world-historical process out of which capitalism (and the “systems world”) is only one precipitate – the post-traditional “lifeworld”, with its distinctive communicative structures, is another. This allows him to talk about the contradiction between capitalism and communicative rationality without formally breaking out of an immanent frame, as the overarching theory of world-historical rationalisation explains the determinate relationship between the systems world and communicative rationality.

    This means, among other things, that Habermas needs to be criticised in a slightly different way – his approach can’t be dismissed as an “abstract negation”, but instead requires something more like a competing, and more adequate, historical theory – one that contests the adequacy of his narrative of world-historical rationalisation. (Of course, Habermas can be rejected for other reasons, as can any theory – I’m just focussing on this specific line of critique because we’re discussing immanence.) But in the context of the current discussion, a side comment on Habermas is probably one topic too many… ;-P)

    Just to add another wrinkle, as long as I’m complexifying the discussion: it shouldn’t be accepted as a point of dogma that theories must be immanent to what they criticise. 🙂 I realise that this will probably sound perverse, as I spend a lot of time on this site griping about theories that aren’t immanent – but that’s because I am prepared (hopefully…) to make a case that an immanent theory of capitalism is both possible, and provides the best means of understanding both the reproduction and the determinate potentials for the transformation of this social form. But this is actually an argument that at some point needs to be made – otherwise, the assumption that critique must be immanent to its object is actually a bit… theological. 🙂

    As it is, most of the theories I criticise themselves posit the importance of immanence – whether directly, by saying they are aiming for an immanent theory (as, for example, Scott did when he offered a critique predicated on the argument that historians can’t stand outside history), or indirectly, by making claims that would logically require immanence (by, for example, treating capitalism as a form of social life, rather than just as an economy, and then also arguing that consciousness is socially determined). So in a sense I can abbreviate this argument for purposes of most discussions – but it’s still always worth remaining aware that the notion of immanence has no more right to function as an argumentative a priori than other normative standards do: it has to be justified.

    Okay. After that wild burst of free association, perhaps I should actually try to respond to your points… 😉

    On the concept of a universalised proletariat: this is another one of these issues that has become extremely complex for historical reasons and, in discussing the issue above, I was more summarising an historical trend in critical theory, than laying out my own position. Apologies that my “voice” is often unclear when I write on this stuff. When I’m sketching broad-strokes summaries of theoretical positions, I often don’t explicitly – at least during the summary itself – outline my personal perspective. Theorists often make judgments of historical events, and these judgments are never the only conceivable judgment that could have been made. Once made, though, these historical judgments then often have an impact on the future development of forms of theory that may even lose track of why things originally came to be deflected into a particular path.

    Just to give a meta example, playing off the example of Habermas above: I have suggested above that Habermas made a particular set of theoretical moves because he accepted an historical interpretation of capitalism as one-dimensional – and interpretation that itself derived from how Adorno and Horkheimer reacted to the development of planned economies. Now the reality is that Habermas is writing in the epicentre of a massive structural transformation of global capitalism – a transformation that arguably refutes Adorno and Horkheimer’s interpretation fairly convincingly. But Habermas is still caught in the conceptual intertia of a particular theoretical tradition, and so he develops a theory that thematises some other dimensions of his historical moment reasonably well – but discusses these dramatic transformations of capitalism in only the most external and superficial way, because he simply doesn’t think it is productive for a critical theory to focus on the issue… I am critical of this move – but I won’t necessarily bring up my specific critique if I’m just, say, summarising the historical trajectory of the Frankfurt School…

    Something similar applies in relation to the negative evaluation of the proletariat: there was a massive historical reaction, crossing a number of otherwise hostile theoretical traditions, reacting against the concept of the proletariat as revolutionary subject (where the meaning attached to this concept, and the specific reasons for reacting against it, vary slightly across traditions). Something very similar happened to concept of a logic of historical development (which is what most people have in mind when they say they reject Hegel’s Geist). Unless my specific intent is to outline my own position in relation to these issues, I’ll often just acknowledge the historical trend in theory, basically to flag that I’m aware of it, and think that I can address the concerns that motivate these sorts of critiques – but I often won’t go into the gory details of my position.

    In terms of the gory details – at least in brief… ;-P The critique of notions of the proletariat as revolutionary subject are generally predicated on a couple of specific concerns that were historically associated with some theories that viewed the proletariat in this way. One concern (particularly important to the Frankfurt School folks) was that this vision of the proletariat was sometimes associated with the belief that capitalism (or human history as a whole) was characterised by a developmental logic that would automatically lead to emancipatory socialism. This argument went something along the lines of: capitalism “socialises” the means of production, both on a technical level – by generating organisational and technological techniques for the mass production and distribution of material goods – and on a human level – by driving more and more of the population in the proletarian class. These developments sit in tension with the continued role of the market, which introduces irrationalities into the process of producing and distributing goods, and steals material wealth away from the genuinely productive proletarian class, and reallocates it to the unproductive capitalist class. Within this framework, the central social contradiction is between these trends toward socialisation, and the privatisation characteristic of the market. Eventually, the market will lose out, and a more adequate socialised form of production will come into its own, ushering in an emancipated egalitarian society.

    Basically, the Frankfurt School folks look at the structural transformation of capitalism in the early 20th century, and conclude that the ideals of this theory have largely been realised: centralised economic planning and the “massification” of society look, in their view, rather like a nightmarish realisation of this vision of socialism. They don’t believe this outcome was inevitable – but they believe that the form of Marxist theory that posited that the proletariat was moving with history was actually politically harmful, because, in a sense, it generated a level of complacency about the direction in which history was trending – it didn’t sensitise the proletariat (or anyone else) to the potential that certain political and economic goals might be realised, without this leading to political self-determination. This is quite explicit in Benjamin, for example:

    The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working, class so much as the notion that it was moving, with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program * already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as ‘the source of all wealth and all culture.’ Smelling a rat, Marx countered that ‘…the man who possesses no other property than his labor power’ must of necessity become ‘the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners…’ However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: ‘The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement… of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.’ This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at, their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. (Thesis XI)

    So that’s one kind of critique – and certainly not a critique that is in any particular way hostile to the proletariat as such. (And Adorno of course follows up with his own analyses of the psychological dynamics of capitalism, precisely in relation to the sorts of concerns you raise at the end of your post.)

    There’s another, slightly more recent, line of critique that basically rejects the universalistic ideal associated with the notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject – asking what gets masked by this universal, etc. This line of critique is fuelled by a broader disillusionment with grand revolutionary projects that not only failed to realise their utopian aspirations, but seemed to lead to particularly repressive societies, and also expresses sensibilities that were both excited by the potentials of a range of diverse “new social movements” not centred on economic contestation, and strongly critical of the technocratic state.

    Arguably, both the first generation Frankfurt School critique, and the more recent critique, made some over-hasty historical judgments – it’s possible (it’s not even that difficult) to conceptualise other forms of critique that retain a notion of proletarian revolution, that don’t fall prey to the issues being criticised. So the question for contemporary theorists becomes, among other things, whether to address the “rational core” of these earlier theoretical reactions by reclaiming the category of proletarian revolution as a central category of critique, or by setting this category aside, and conceptualising emancipatory potentials in some other way. The field of contestation is open here. 🙂

    Personally, I tend not to describe emancipatory potentials within capitalism in terms of the “proletariat” – for reasons that are related to the issues I was discussing above, related to the way in which the concept of “class” is generally understood in our time. Marx has a very specific structural definition of the proletariat: they’re people who, because they do not own the means of subsistence, must sell their labour on the market. Let’s think about this definition for a moment: to whom would it apply today? A better question might be: to whom wouldn’t it apply? You can be extremely well-paid (exorbitantly overpaid, in fact) and be proletarian according to the structural definition of this term – emiseration is actually not part of the structural understanding of this class category. So we have reached a state in which, as Marx predicted, the overwhelming preponderance of the population has been proletarianised: the proletariat is – right now – the “universal” class. Not because (as was the case in Marx’s earlier works) they are marginalised and excluded from any specific social identity and therefore are uniquely poised to become the standard-bearers of universal human rights, but because they are socially central – they are, in fact, the specific and historically distinctive “product” of capitalism (this is, incidentally, what I think Marx actually means by the “labour theory of value” – that the actual product of capitalism isn’t material goods – from a structural point of view, those are incidental side effects of the actual social product, which is labour…).

    This development actually does have emancipatory possibilities, which are actually bound together with the sorts of things you raise – correctly, in my view – at the end of your post: this development makes universally available certain forms of perception and thought that actually do have emancipatory import – that can be removed from the context in which they have been developed, and severed from the role they currently play, and provide the foundation for political contestation that points toward a very different organisation of social life. My problem is that this is not at all what people customarily think of when they think of “proletarian revolution” – so the term risks introducing immense confusion, due to its accumulation of historical associations…

    At the same time, there is still a tendency to conceptualise a “revolutionary subject” such that this term means a demographic group that has some unique and privileged perspective on capitalism. I am leery of such claims, both because they can lead (and in fact routinely do lead) to theorists embracing movements because of who, demographically, participates in those movements, rather than evaluating the actual political goals such movements express (so people will embrace, say, a fundamentalist religious movement because it’s “anti-capitalist”, without exploring the particular alternative to capitalism being sought, or they will embrace a working class movement because it’s an expression of the self-assertion of the working class, without exploring whether the movement is predicated on perpetuating the centrality of the kind of instrumental labour that is central to capitalism), and because I simply don’t think there is a correlation between “structural” perspectives generated by capitalism, and the political positions held by empirical individuals who happen to hold particular kinds of social roles. The structural perspectives generated by capitalism are not psychological: they’re “objective” – they’re products of collective practice. Individuals can, of course, internalise particular perspectives, but the “system” doesn’t actually require that this happen (and here I think you rightly point to Weber, who appreciates this far more than most other social theorists). Like everything else under capitalism, this potential disjoint between structural positions and individual or collective attitudes holds both emancipatory and regressive potentials – but it does, I would suggest, mean that we have no actual reason to assume that the economic role someone plays will have a strict correlation with how they perceive capitalism or how they orient themselves politically.

    It’s in this specific sense – and only in this sense – that I tend to be critical of studies asking why the working class betrays its own “interests”: I think such approaches are assuming that a relationship is “supposed” to hold between an empirical individual’s economic role and their political position, whereas I don’t actually think a “structural” theory of capitalism supports this claim – and it’s actually a good thing that it doesn’t support this claim, because this is how the theory begins to square some of the circles Ryan/Aless poses about agency at the end of his most recent comment. ;-P I’m being very, very condensed here, but this kind of “structural” theory is a bit different from theories that posit some kind of straightforward determination of consciousness by social context – one of the things this theory can help thematise is actually the relative independence of individuals from particular social constraints, such that political contestation becomes thinkable without breaking the immanent frame of the theory… So…

    One final point (and I promise I am winding down here… ;-P): when you mention Marx moving away from Hegel’s notion of the Geist. Several theorists have actually pointed out that the language Marx uses for capital is actually the same language Hegel uses for the Geist – Marx refers to capital as the “self-moving substance that is subject” (Postone discusses it here, but I’ve seen the same point discussed by a number of authors). So it may be more accurate to say that, rather than abandoning the Geist, Marx inverts the significance Hegel attaches to the concept, suggesting that the nonmystical core of Hegel’s concept of the Geist is actually capital. To make sense of this, however, it’s actually necessary not to equate capital with money. Money is presented in Capital as one of the (necessary) forms of appearance of capital, and as a form of appearance that begins to suggest the potential for dynamism and for instrumental reason – but it isn’t itself capital. Capital is instead (as the Geist also is) a logic of historical development. In this case, however, the source of this logic of historical development is social practice – and the emancipatory move would not involve the realisation of the logic of development, but its abolition – an abolition that involves, however, the active appropriation of both the material and ideal resources constituted in the course of capitalist development. Again, Benjamin hits the heart of the concept:

    A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Thesis IX)

    Ryan/Aless – Since I’ve been so long-winded in responding to Joseph, I’ve managed to stagger across some of the issues you’ve raised above. You’ll perhaps be relieved to learn that this means that I will respond only very briefly to a couple of additional points from your comment.

    First a quick clarification in response to your comment that you don’t want to give up the notion of personal domination – apologies for the lack of clarity on my end here: I never meant to suggest that we would need to give up such a concept; only that theories that try to define capitalism as a form of personal domination have missed something pivotal. Okay. How abstract do we want this discussion to become? 😉 Let’s see how I go here…

    One question that motivates my work – one of the oldest “layers” of my project – relates to how we can understand the historical emergence of the social sciences and of related forms of perception and thought that find it intuitive – that find it easy, to an historically unprecedented degree – to understand what kind of claim is being made, when someone calls some institution “social” or “cultural”. In other words, even if we engage in disputes over whether a particular thing (a family structure, for example) is “natural” or merely a “social convention”, we find it relatively easy – and on a mass level – to perceive a very wide range of institutions and practices as arbitrary human creations. Critiques that target personal domination are often doing extremely important things – fighting fights that must be fought – achieving significant political goals that wouldn’t be achieved in any other way: I don’t at all believe that such movements are unimportant or shouldn’t happen – they’re pivotal, and they are one of the things that, I believe, constitutes collective resources that then become available for emancipatory ends.

    There is one thing, however, that such critiques don’t do, which is to ask why it is so easy for us to recognise personal domination – to recognise that personal inequalities are arbitrary and artificial, and therefore can be contested politically. Instead, these forms of critique take for granted, and then simply apply, their recognition of this kind of social contingency and political contestability.

    Part of what I’m trying to do is to get back behind this – to understand, self-reflexively, the mass availability of this kind of critical perspective on personal domination. I need to stress that I’m speaking at an incredibly abstract level here: it’s clear that not everyone agrees that certain things are personal domination – if there were broad consensus at this concrete level, we wouldn’t need political contestation. What interests me is the more abstract issue of why we see so much political contestation (including at very micrological levels, and over quite everyday things – only some of which spill over into large scale, organised social movements). There are other, related questions that reinforce this point, pointing to similar forms of subjecitivty that manifest in ways other than political contestation, but my goal here isn’t to develop the point comprehensively, but just to gesture toward the problem.

    One of the things I’ve been trying to suggest in the various posts about abstraction, immanent counter-factuals and the rest, is that this level of the “social” (which I tend to call “concrete social relations”) comes to be perceived as arbitrary and contingent because, at one level of social practice, this is precisely how we collectively treat it: we practice a structural indifference to concrete social relations in one dimension of collective practice – a claim that doesn’t mean that we are at all indifferent to concrete social relations in other dimensions of collective practice. The dimension of collective practice that is structurally indifferent to concrete social relations is capital (here, I should note, I’m speaking in my own voice – Postone’s reading of Marx goes a long way toward this position, but doesn’t quite go here – so at this point, I’m dangling at the end of my own rope… ;-P). I view capital as a contradictory pattern of historical transformation – a pattern that derives from the unintended consequences of collective practice and that, historically, has proven able to replicate itself in and through a wide range of concrete social institutions (thus relativising those institutions – and providing the practical, everyday experience on an everyday level for the development and proliferation of forms of subjectivity that recognise the contingency of concrete social institutions, where these critical forms of subjectivity are, essentially, just making explicit the implications or tacit logic of collective behaviour). I’ve said that capital relativises concrete social relations, but it would be more accurate to say that capital and the various concrete social relations in and through which capital is generated mutually differentiate one another – with the consequence that the structural indifference to concrete social relations informs our sort of intuitive “gestalt” of “the social” (as an arbitrary, contingent, human creation, subject to conscious political contestation and transformation), while capital (which I sometimes call an abstract or impersonal social relation, as it consists in the domination of people by a pattern of historical transformation, rather than by any specifically personal forms of domination – although those obviously also exist) provides a sort of intuitive “gestalt” for those qualitative attributes that we tend to ascribe to “nature”.

    It’s possible, I would suggest, to use this approach (in a much more developed form) to understand some of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the sciences and the social sciences in the modern era. It’s also possible to use this approach to suggest why, in the midst of enormous political contestations and dramatic periodic transformations of political and cultural institutions, capitalism continues to be replicated in new forms: very, very, very gesturally – it’s more “intuitive” to us (for structural reasons) to direct political action toward concrete social relations and, at any given historical moment, capitalism is actually mediated via a particular constellation of concrete social institutions, so it’s not an unreasonable assumption for a movement to make, that it can overcome capitalism by targeting a particular set of concrete institutions, because those institutions may, in fact, mediate capitalism – they may be “causing” the generation of the overarching historical dynamic that gives capitalist society the unique “instrumental” character that continually generates “labour” as its “product”, and thus subordinates people to a system of production that has become an end in itself. The problem is, it’s generally historically plausible to assume that this instrumental character is actually embedded in concrete relations – and so on an empirical level you can get “successful” revolutions that dramatically reconfigure the everyday institutions of social life – and yet build straight back in to the new institutions forms of compulsion that reconstitute the overarching historical dynamic. None of this is “necessary” in any lockstep way – but recognising why these outcomes might have been historically plausible provides a basis for beginning to understand the failure of many large-scale revolutionary projects, without falling into pessimism and disillusionment with emancipatory politics per se.

    The fact that one can construct this kind of theory, of course, means that capitalism also tips its hand – there are determinate reasons that it is easy to misrecognise the complex dynamic that results from the mutual differentiation of social practice into concrete and abstract dimensions (and, of course, I’m far from having developed a full argument about misrecognition here), but it’s possible to theorise these sorts of issues, while also pointing to determinate ways that capitalism simultaneously tips its hand (and I’m not going to develop this argument in full here, either… ;-P). But hopefully this at least hand waves in the general direction of what this kind of immanent critical theory tries to do…

    One final point, just to relate this back to your questions about agency: one of the things this approach suggests is that it’s not sufficient for a critical theory just to thematise the possibility for “agency”, understood abstractly and divorced from the specific goals toward which agency is directed. One of the things capitalism historically achieves is an immense release of “agency” – political contestation, everywhere! Much of this agency, however, is actually quite compatible with the reproduction of capitalism (note that this does not make the exercise of agency unimportant – it matters a great deal whether we live in a more humane form of capitalism, or in a horrific one, so this point is not meant to diminish the importance of political contestations that remain within the ambit of capitalist reproduction). One of the things this approach suggests is that capitalism itself generates the possibility for contestation (and of a particularly “Foucaultian” kind, as well…) and for “rupture”: these potentials are not difficult to explain, and orienting a critical theory to demonstrate that such things are possible, from the standpoint of this approach, falls short of the mark. What is needed instead is a thematisation of the possibility for particular kinds of agency, oriented to goals that – if the object of the theory is actually to point beyond capitalism – actually “hit” capitalism itself. For this, as I’ve been suggesting, I think we have to capture the impersonal dimensions of capitalism.

    In the event that anyone is actually still reading this monster: apologies again for how undercooked all of this is, and how much it leaves untouched. And thank both of you for an incredibly productive discussion – this has been more useful to me than you can possibly know.

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  12. Robert June 22, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Hi N,

    Great post.

    Just a “drive by” thought. My ‘recreation time’ was chewed up reading ☺

    Maybe I have misunderstood your use of the term ‘structural’ but it may be helpful to analyse ‘capitalism’ as a set of mythologies (a la Barthes) or even ‘mythological production system’. The ‘subject’ becomes the ‘site’ of the theory, the sign/myth becomes the ‘object’ of analysis. All quite “immanent” really.

    Also – I think you have pointed this out in numerous places – the term ‘capitalism’ is too often ill defined, and its use requires caution. In very crude way, I feel that when used in such an arbitrary fashion it tends to lose its ‘strength’ as a ‘sign.’ I see this loss of strength often in all manner of ‘economic’ literature. Whilst there is a loss of strength (or perhaps, increased ambiguity in meaning) in relation to capitalism as a ‘sign,’ the signifier(s) on which it is ‘built’ (ideas about human nature, folk psychology, rationality – take your pick) retain their strength. Viewed in this way, I think that the concept of ‘capitalism’ – as intended – represents a relation between ideas of subject (signifier) and object (signified), but one that comes apart more easily (for analysis) and one that allows for immanence (or – as I read that term – phenomenological coherence).

  13. N Pepperell June 23, 2007 at 7:57 am

    Hey Robert! I’ll have to beg off a proper response, as this is my final weekend of marking before grades are due…

    So just two quick comments – but more than happy to pick this up at greater length after the marking slog, if you’d like (not least because I feel guilty at the thought that your recreation time was eaten by the post!).

    First on the term “structural” – I’m not completely comfortable with the term, which is one of the reasons it kept getting scare quoted above (when I remembered to do this…). In this discussion, I was basically just trying to get across that there were other options, aside from thinking in terms of the personal domination of people by other people (and that there were elements of collective experience that we have an interest in understanding, that can be difficult to understand solely with reference to the notion of personal domination – other kinds of concepts are also required). At the same time, I was trying to get across that you could develop a theory of collectively-available forms of practice (including “practices” of thought) that didn’t require you to “embody” those practices in some specific demographic group – in other words, the notion of “the social” can be more abstract than the notion of “a group of people” – it can also refer, for example, to the unintended consquences of the interactions among certain people, etc. (Sorry that I don’t have time to develop this properly.) The term “structural” was serving as a kind of placeholder for this constellation of concepts in some parts of the discussion above.

    I’m obviously interested in pushing on common definitions of capitalism. The discussion above, as is probably inevitable when I write situationally, and in long bursts, shifts voice on a number of occasions – so sometimes I’m talking about what particular kinds of Marxism think, sometimes I’m talking about what a particular reading of Marx believes Marx thinks, and occasionally I’m talking about what I think personally – but without the dividing lines being, I think, as clear as they should be.

    But the basic idea – speaking here on a personal level, but in a way that is also compatible with how I read Marx – is to come up with core theoretical categories that are simultaneously “categories of subjectivity and objectivity”. The approach is practice-theoretic, and talks about the forms of phenomenological experience that become plausible in a context generated by determinate forms of practice. So there’s no hard distinction here between practices of “thought” and other forms of practice – although there is potential to have the theory talk about forms of practice or forms of perception and thought that are generated as possibilities within a context, without this claim meaning that everyone within that context will participate directly in those forms of practice, perception or thought. So the “structure/agency” question suggested in Ryan/Aless’ post can be posed in other ways, without breaking out of an immanent frame.

    In terms of your suggestion to think of capitalism as a “mythological production system” – I can go with this, as long as we don’t treat “myths” as some kind of conceptual abstraction. I think we perform our myths in a strong sense – that things, to use Hegel’s (and Marx’s) concept, appear as they are. I do, though, think this is a “fetish” – a contingent way of performing and experiencing our collective existence. And it’s precisely because I’m interested in getting at the determinate characteristics of our specific myths or fetishes that I tend to want to reach (as, from your comment, I gather you would too) beyond notions of personal domination as core analytical categories.

    Sorry to respond in such a drive-by way myself… Hopefully we can continue when I can do the concepts more justice…

  14. Pingback: » Truncated Convolutions

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