Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment on State “Intervention”

This post will pick up in a very indirect way on some of the issues running through the discussion below on what kind of “state intervention” or what kind of “regulation” will emerge in relation to the current economic crisis.

Two points. Very very tangential.

First: it is somewhat common for commentators to write as though Marx has a theory of the “economy” but, sadly, not a theory of forms of government or political institutions or power. I would suggest that this perceived lack might come from the sort of smuggled assumption to which Praxis draws attention in a recent post – the assumption that a theory of the forms of government or power must take the form of a theory of a national state.

Sometimes commentators set out to supplement Marx’s economic theory by offering their own theory of the state or other institutional governmental actors. Often, these analyses take up from the point Ryan/Aless has put forward below – they operate as demonstrations of how governmental institutions serve the “interests” of various class actors. This sort of analysis is taken to be consonant with Marx’s economic analysis – which is itself therefore positioned as a form of ideology critique – as an analysis geared toward revealing the existence of class domination, in the assumption that such domination is customarily concealed – by, e.g., the universalising pretensions of social contract discourses, rights talk, and other expressions that edit out power imbalances that run through the formally free transactions of economic exchange. The assumption here is that Marx’s critical theory is primarily oriented to whisking away the veil of universalism, to reveal the distorting particularity underneath. Historically, this understanding of Marx’s critique would often have been associated with the desire to assert – as, for example, Lukács does – a “true” universal that could counter the false universalism being criticised.

I don’t contest that it can be useful to debunk universalising pretensions or to reveal power relations that might be difficult to see. I do contest that one needs an apparatus anything like Capital to achieve this goal. It does not take this kind of massive, ornate theoretical system to demonstrate the existence of power relations, or to show that certain social groups benefit disproportionately, and others suffer heavily, from existing social conditions: empirical work – even journalistic work – is both more efficient and more effective for this purpose.

Marx is not, I think, unaware of this: he mobilises such a vast apparatus in Capital, not because he is pathologically verbose or hopelessly misguided in his choice of theoretical strategies, but because he has different theoretical goals. He is trying to analyse social forms – to show how these forms are generated in collective practice – and to ask what else we might be able to create, with the materials the constitution of these forms have accidentally made available to us. The unfolding of this critique might unveil a number of things along the way – concealed power relations, the determinate social bases of universalising discourses, unrecognised potentials for constituting new forms of collective life – but the goal of the analysis as a whole is to investigate, as thoroughly as possible, the various inherited conditions we have not chosen, because it is out of the building blocks provided by these unchosen conditions that we will build any subsequent history.

Second: a great deal of content is already smuggled into the discussion, once we start speaking in terms of state “intervention” or “regulation”. The dichotomy of “political institutions” and “the economy” is operative here without an analysis of whether there might be some underlying relation that captures the distinctive forms that are positioned in such an antithetical relation. This antithesis participates in a classical liberal distinction between forms of conscious collective governance – which figure as artificial and thus as overtly political, contingent and contestable – and forms of nonconscious collective governance – which figure as apolitical – as natural, organic and “environmental” (and which are historically associated with particular conceptions of nature – as both a self-regulating lawlike sphere, and as a blind organimistic process: more on this another time). Counter to the readings that see Marx as a theorist of the economy, who didn’t get around to providing a theory of political forms, I would suggest that Marx’s formal analysis does provide an analysis of the forms of political power bound up in the reproduction of the social relation that is capital – that this analysis does not focus on the issue of the “interests” served by political institutions – and that, moreover, the associated analysis of what are generally taken to be “economic” forms is intended precisely to show the non-economic character – the qualitative characteristics that cannot be explained with reference to any intrinsic requirement of material reproduction – of what present themselves intuitively as “economic” forms.

I cannot adequately outline what I take to be Marx’s analysis of forms of political power here – the analysis is simply too multifaceted and pervasive throughout his text to boil down into a post. I’ll offer some gestures, just to give a sense of what I have in mind.

Already in the opening chapter, in the “dialectical” derivation of the money form, the commodity figures as a social subject, oriented to relations of mutual recognition with other commodities: when we later learn that commodities can be more than “things outside us” – that there is also a very peculiar sort of commodity that happens to be a person – this revelation is meant to retroject back on this opening section, revealing the section to be a preliminary discussion of the practical basis for the social plausibility of social contract, rights, and mutual recognition discourses. The chapter on the Working Day analyses why “regulation” is necessitated by the form of production it superficially appears to oppose – and why this regulation takes a particular universalistic shape. The discussion of machinery and large-scale industry puts forward the nucleus of an analysis of tendencies to bureaucratisation, drives to what Foucault called “biopower”, pressures to technocracy. So much more…

This list is inadequate, and doesn’t do justice to the analysis. Suffice to say that I’m always struck when commentators take Marx not to have gotten around to discussing these issues, since I see the question of forms of (overt) political power and institutions to be shot through the entire text – alongside a parallel discussion of the social constitution of forms of power that derive from forms of unintentional collective coercion that we impose on one another – often while pursuing those “interests” that are taken by so many to be the major finding of Marxist critique. (For Marx, of course, it is… of interest… that social agents driven by the pursuit of their own interests, should unintentionally constitute such a complex system of mutual compulsions as a sort of side effect of practices oriented to other ends – so “interests” are not off the analytical table – it’s just that a much simpler theoretical apparatus could have been mobilised, if this were the end point of the analysis.)

Apologies that these points are both so sweeping, and so underdeveloped: placeholders for myself. At some point these claims will hopefully assume a more defensible form.


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