Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Notes on Elster’s Game-Theoretic Concept of Emergence

Roger’s comments below on Jon Elster’s methodological individualism reminded me that I should stash somewhere (like here) a few fragmentary notes on Elster’s recognition that Marx is making an argument about emergent phenomena – and the way in which Elster’s sense of how this sort of argument operates, differs from mine.

In Making Sense of Marx (1985), Elster draws repeated attention to how Marx focuses on the unintentional aggregate consequences of individual actions. He emphasises how Marx’s work is related to theories that understand human history as the result of human behaviour, but not of intentional human action (3-4), speaks of Marx’s “striking analyses of the way in which micro-motives are aggregated into macro-behaviour” (4), describes the importance of “supra-intentional causality” (22) and “counter-finality” (24-27) for Marx’s argument, etc.

Although my vocabulary is different, I draw attention to similar aspects of Marx’s argument. Yet Elster’s methodological conclusion – that methodological individualism provides the best means to grasp such phenomena – is not one that I myself would draw. What causes this difference?

A good portion of the difference, I suspect, lies in the different sorts of emergent phenomena Elster and I believe Marx is trying to explain. Elster focuses on Marx’s analysis of what Elster (48) calls “fallacies of composition” – passages in which Marx talks about how particular practices would be beneficial for individuals if they were the only ones carrying out those practices, but generate unintentional collective consequences that are very negative when many individuals carry out the same practice. So, for example, Elster (46-48) draws attention to how, for each individual capitalist, it seems like a good idea to lower the wages of their workers, because this increases profits. When every capitalist does this, however, it lowers the amount workers – in their alternative social role as consumers – can spend, and thus reacts back negatively on the capitalist class as a whole.

When Elster talks about unintentional aggregate consequences, this is the sort of phenomenon he has in mind. And Marx certainly does, here and there, offer analyses of this sort of phenomenon. If I thought this were the main thing Marx was trying to explain, I might agree that game-theoretic or methodologically individualistic tools might give us a decent first approximation of the phenomenon.

What Elster overlooks, I would suggest, is that the emergent phenomena that interest Marx are vastly more complex than these sorts of bad individual calls in the collective competitive game. Marx is attempting to explain aggregate patterns of social behaviour that manifest themselves in complex patterns of transformation of social institutions in capitalist societies – examining, for example, the recurrent dynamic of the expulsion and reabsorption of human labour that defines capitalist production as pivoting around the expenditure of human labour power in a much more direct way than would appear necessary, given the levels of automation possible in capitalist production.

These sorts of phenomena, I suggest, do not arise due to bad judgement calls in some specific strategic field of intentional action. They arise instead from how apparently unrelated sorts of social practices, which seem to social actors to be unfolding in very different strategic fields of social practice, operate in tandem to generate cascades of unintentional effects whose multifaceted and indirect causes make it extremely difficult for social actors to sort out how their actions could possibly be responsible for the aggregate result. As a consequence, the aggregate result is discovered playing itself out in the realm of material reproduction and, because it has no obvious social cause, is plausibly interpreted as arising due to some inherent principle for spontaneous self-organisation in the material world. This is how Marx’s argument about the fetish links up with his argument about unintentional aggregate consequences of social action – a connection Elster does not seem able to make, hence his dismissal of the bulk of the fetish argument.

I don’t have time to develop or properly substantiate these points here, so, for what it’s worth, fragmentary notes for a future argument…


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