Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Debasing the Superstructure

Okay. Let’s see how far I manage to get into this concept before other obligations draw me away…

I tend to dislike attempts to understand Marx’s analysis of capitalism in terms of categories like “base” and “superstructure”. This vocabulary is historically associated with dichotomous forms of theory that attempt to parcel out social experience into parts viewed as more foundational – and thus more “real”, or more causally efficacious – than other parts, which are viewed as more ephemeral or derivative. I tend to see Marx’s work as profoundly antagonistic to such attempts to parcel out ontological primacy, and I view Marx as generally dedicated to fluid and dynamic categories that cannot be well understood in terms of any sort of fixed and static dichotomous opposition.

At the same time, there is a potential rational core to this vocabulary – which is used by Marx himself, although much more rarely than one might expect from its prominence in the literature. This rational core does not, however, trace a divide between economic practices and other sorts of practice. It traces, instead, a relationship between high theoretical discourse, and more mundane forms of everyday social practice. And the relationship it traces is one in which high theoretical discourse too often operates as a sort of delusional apotheosis of everyday social practices whose impact on thought is disavowed by theorists who perceive themselves to have arrived at their various conclusions through the brute force of rarified intellect, rather than through the articulation of practical, bodily experiences collectively experienced by a mass of humanity far wider than the few participants in high theoretical discussions.

On this reading, the “base” is not some specific sphere of social action, but rather mundane practical experience in the broadest sense. This base of practical experience is, for Marx, generative of historical potential and insight – the selfsame potential and insight that makes its way into a “superstructure” of high discourse, where it is misrecognised as the product of disembodied and decontextualised thought. Marx seeks to “ground” the superstructure in the base by… debasing this rarified superstructural self-understanding, by dragging it back into the bodily space of collective practices from which it arises. He does this by showing how specific insights that high theoretical discourses claim to deduce – whether through empirical observation, conventional logic, or dialectics – are “deducible” only because these insights are presently being enacted in various mundane and everyday forms of practice that are widely experienced, and thus intuitively familiar, well before their formal theoretical articulations.

To the extent that these formal articulations cannot grasp their relation to everyday practices – to the extent that other forms of theory treat their insights as floating above mundane forms of social experience – these articulations will forever be the captives of the mundane forms they disavow. They will operate as the “apotheoses” of everyday experiences – treating the insights suggested by contingent practical experiences as deep and essential truths become manifest in history through the power of thought. As such apotheoses, they tend to perceive their relationship with practice in an inverted way: instead of recognising themselves as articulations of contingent practical possibilities, accidentally wrested from historical experience, they take their theoretical insights to be sui generis, and then conclude – apologistically – that any compatibility between the claims of the theory, and the mundane practices of collective life, means simply that the compatible practices can be objectively judged to be rational. Such theories, Marx believes, see social reality in an inverted form. By debasing the superstructure, by demonstrating that the sensibilities expressed in high theoretical discourse can be generated in mundane forms of everyday practice, Marx seeks to drag the apotheosis back to earth, and thus upturn this deranged mirror-image self-understanding.

Marx’s obsession with inversion and apotheosis starts very early, and continues through his latest works, although the resources he brings to bear to analyse everyday practice become much more extensive over time. The famous opening passage of The German Ideology, for example, mocks the Young Hegelians – characteristically, for Marx, by opening with a few sentences voiced from the perspective of the position being criticised:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to debunk and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation.

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

This “new revolutionary philosopher” tilts at the windmill of false consciousness, believing that, if only the right battles be fought at the level of concepts, freedom will follow. Without the idea of gravity, no one will drown. Evidence of material harm becomes more grist for the idealist mill – more proof of the harmful nature of the ideal, rather than a practical reminder of the material character of the problem to be solved.

In the next section, we continue to hear from the “new revolutionary philosopher”, sarcasm our guide that this position is not being endorsed, but enacted to establish this character – Marx’s fool:

As we hear from German ideologists, Germany has in the last few years gone through an unparalleled revolution. The decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy, which began with Strauss, has developed into a universal ferment into which all the “powers of the past” are swept. In the general chaos mighty empires have arisen only to meet with immediate doom, heroes have emerged momentarily only to be hurled back into obscurity by bolder and stronger rivals. It was a revolution beside which the French Revolution was child’s play, a world struggle beside which the struggles of the Diadochi [successors of Alexander the Great] appear insignificant. Principles ousted one another, heroes of the mind overthrew each other with unheard-of rapidity, and in the three years 1842-45 more of the past was swept away in Germany than at other times in three centuries.

All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought.

A burlesque image – this is a comedy – we are meant to laugh along: the decay of a high philosophy generates a “universal ferment” in which the actions of “mighty empires” and “heroes” stage battles of world historical significance. The language is heady – but the reader is distanced from the passage by the opening and closing brackets: “As we hear from German ideologists” and “All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought”. The tone is high dismissal. The perspective is tacitly panned back from the positions being criticised, the perspectives caught up in this “world struggle” in the mind.

The next paragraph – crudely, but the strategic elements are there – begins to suggest a more mundane set of experiences that operate similarly to the battle of the mind portrayed just above: the saturation of the market by industrial capital in a state of competition that becomes more frenetic as the market becomes more glutted:

Certainly it is an interesting event we are dealing with: the putrescence of the absolute spirit. When the last spark of its life had failed, the various components of this caput mortuum began to decompose, entered into new combinations and formed new substances. The industrialists of philosophy, who till then had lived on the exploitation of the absolute spirit, now seized upon the new combinations. Each with all possible zeal set about retailing his apportioned share. This naturally gave rise to competition, which, to start with, was carried on in moderately staid bourgeois fashion. Later when the German market was glutted, and the commodity in spite of all efforts found no response in the world market, the business was spoiled in the usual German manner by fabricated and fictitious production, deterioration in quality, adulteration of the raw materials, falsification of labels, fictitious purchases, bill-jobbing and a credit system devoid of any real basis. The competition turned into a bitter struggle, which is now being extolled and interpreted to us as a revolution of world significance, the begetter of the most prodigious results and achievements.

The great revolution of the mind, the text suggests, is being played out, over and over again, in a much more mundane register – and the results of that practical revolution are no more emancipatory than those playing out at the level of ideology.

This narrative move: starting internal to the perspective being criticised, but writing in a way that sends up that perspective, sarcastically destabilising it by exaggerating its worst tendencies, playing the perspective as the Fool – then the shift to a more mundane practical register, where similar self-conceptions and patterns are also being enacted – is a move I have argued is central to the narrative structure of Capital. While the analytical resources, I would argue, are much more complex in the later work, the critical style is similar: first send it up, then tear it down, by showing that there are other dimensions of social practice where the same sensibilities are being enacted. Capital will greatly modify the basic critical apparatus set out in this early work, and offer a much more nuanced theory of practice and understanding of capitalism. This specific impulse, however, is retained. Marx continues to find value in a burlesque representation of his opponents’ views, and in a constant debasement of other forms of theory by demonstrating how the forms of thought, and the analytical categories these theories deploy, are generated in specific forms of everyday social practices that are often oriented to crass ends.

When writing the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrestles systematically with the question of how to apply this critical impulse, not simply to positions he intends to dismiss, but also to positions he accords considerable validity. (Maddeningly, he then decides not to publish these reflections with the Contribution, feeling that they anticipate the results of his investigation… We therefore know them as the opening chapter to the Grundrisse manuscript, and they were not known in Marx’s own time at all…)

In this introduction, which I have analysed a number of times previously on this blog, Marx considers the great difficulty with which Adam Smith managed to articulate the simple category of labour – a category that, Marx argues, is on one level extremely old (it is genuinely true that people have always “laboured”, so the category picks out a phenomenon that transcends many different forms of social life). On another level, however, Marx points out that those other forms of social life themselves lacked this category – and that it was by no means an easy category even for Adam Smith to articulate.

One intepretive option would be to conclude that Adam Smith – genius that he was – finally discovered a phenomenon that had always already existed, but had previously never been recognised. He deduced through the sheer brute force of reason that, logically speaking, all forms of human intercourse with nature were, in their essential being, the same form of activity – a form of activity which he then christened with the term “labour”.

Marx is not happy with this option. Smith is a genius, sure. But his genius does not lie in deducing something that had always already been true. Rather, it lies in his sensitivity to the implications of a very recent historical shift – a shift that means that, in at least one dimension of practical experience, all manner of activities involving intercourse between humans and nature are being treated in collective practice as indifferently the same sort of activity. It is this practical enactment, for Marx, that renders plausible and potentially intuitive the development of the simple category of labour per se – the category that seems so abstract that it applies to all human societies, but a category whose abstraction is directly true, as a practical matter, only for us:

Labour seems to be a very simple category. The notion of labour in this universal form, as labour in general, is also extremely old. Nevertheless “labour” in this simplicity is economically considered just as modern a category as the relations which give rise to this simple abstraction. […]

It was an immense advance when Adam Smith rejected all restrictions with regard to the activity that produces wealth – for him it was labour as such, neither manufacturing, nor commercial, nor agricultural labour, but all types of labour. The abstract universality which creates wealth implies also the universality of the objects defined as wealth: they are products as such, or once more labour as such, but in this case past, materialised labour. How difficult and immense a transition this was is demonstrated by the fact that Adam Smith himself occasionally relapses once more into the Physiocratic system. It might seem that in this way merely an abstract expression was found for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings act as producers – irrespective of the type of society they live in. This is true in one respect, but not in another.

The fact that the specific kind of labour is irrelevant presupposes a highly developed complex of actually existing kinds of labour, none of which is any more the all-important one. The most general abstractions arise on the whole only when concrete development is most profuse, so that a specific quality is seen to be common to many phenomena, or common to all. Then it is no longer perceived solely in a particular form. This abstraction of labour is, on the other hand, by no means simply the conceptual resultant of a variety of concrete types of labour. The fact that the particular kind of labour employed is immaterial is appropriate to a form of society in which individuals easily pass from one type of labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant. Labour, not only as a category but in reality, has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual. This state of affairs is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society. The abstract category “labour,” “labour as such,” labour sans phrase, the point of departure of modern economics, thus becomes a practical fact only there. The simplest abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modem political economy, an abstraction which expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society. […]

The example of labour strikingly demonstrates how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity in all epochs – precisely because they are abstractions – are equally a product of historical conditions even in the specific form of abstractions, and they retain their full validity only for and within the framework of these conditions.

In this passage, Marx applies the same basic sensibility wielded in The German Ideology – but here in a manner that makes clearer how it is possible to preserve and validate the insights gained from practice. Marx doesn’t contest the validity of the simple category of “labour” – he just bounds this validity, by picking out the practices that have rendered the category socially valid. If we then want to look back on past societies, and apply this category, we can do this – as long as we recognise that we are looking back on past societies with our own eyes, with sensibilities that have been primed by practical possibilities that were not necessarily available in those earlier times. By the same token, we can apply these categories to look forward – toward forms of collective life that we would like to create. If we do this with some awareness of the contingency of our own categories, we are better positioned to understand the need for the development of new institutions (for those categories whose practical reality we wish to preserve, or to adapt into other forms), and we are better positioned for understanding how we can selectively inherit the practical potentials of our own time – an understanding that is more difficult to achieve, if we view our categories as arising from the discovery of timeless truths.

In this manuscript, Marx is still wrestling with how to understand the modern “simplicity” of labour sans phrase. The explanation he sketches briefly here – which grounds the phenomenon in the practical experience of being able to move readily between roles in a complex division of labour – is subsumed, in Capital, into an immensely more complex explanation that I won’t revisit in this post. What I did want to revisit, although it will be a familiar point to regular readers, is that this basic critical impulse remains central to the later work.

So, as I’ve argued, the opening chapter begins by sending up several positions of which Marx is critical – I’ve called them empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical characters. They could equally be called vulgar political economy, classical (or scientific) political economy, and a sort of vulgar dialectics. In all three cases, although this has largely gone unnoticed by all but a few commentators, the tone of the text is highly sarcastic, and the forms of argument are voiced in a blustering style, by characters engaged in a bit of performative self-puffery. While there are hints all through the text – in tone and word choice, in footnotes, and in textual asides – that this sort of burlesque is being performed, the most explicit early indication that Marx takes the forms of argument being displayed to be somewhat deluded comes in the form of a digression on Aristotle that I have analysed a number of times here in the past.

In the passages preceding this digression, Marx has put forward three forms of analysis, each of which, for all their differences, share a tendency to treat their insights as disembodied and sui generis, divorced from collective practice. Thus the empiricist figure treats consciousness as contemplative and takes for granted whatever interpretive insights leap to mind from reflection on how things present themselves “at first sight”; the transcendental character trusts in its deductive acumen and rational intuition; and the dialectical character trusts in its dialectical techniques that cleverly derive a series of schoolbook “inversions”. On one level, these figures disagree – they present conflicting interpretations of what the commodity “really is”. On another level, however, they share a similar orientation that affirms the power of the brute force application of a disembodied consciousness.

The digression on Aristotle is the first moment in the text where Marx flags how profoundly he disagrees.

The immediately previous section effects a tour de force of dialectical logic, one which has drawn its conclusions, purportedly, by examining the immanent logic of the category of the commodity. Marx then introduces Aristotle in order – quite mischievously – to ask: if it’s logic that has brought us to this point, then why didn’t Aristotle work it out? He goes on to show that Aristotle in fact considered the possibility that something like “value” might exist, that some sort of relation of equality might be implied by the act of exchange, etc. So the problem wasn’t a conceptual one – it wasn’t that Aristotle wasn’t smart enough to draw the conclusions put forward by the various perspectives Marx has been presenting in the chapter thus far. No, Aristotle considered these conclusions – and then rejected them. But why?

Marx is using Aristotle here in order to make it difficult to dismiss the point by claiming that lack of intelligence or lack of familiarity with logic caused the problem. If Aristotle failed to draw the conclusion, Marx suggests, then maybe it’s not logic or intellect that has led to this conclusion in the first place. Maybe the characters presented thus far in the chapter, who seem to understand their arguments to be driven by the brute force of their disembodied and decontextualised reason, have misunderstood the basis of their insights. Maybe something else is in fact required. Maybe intellect is not enough.

The other thing that is required – as Marx here makes clear – is practical experience. Aristotle failed to “discover” value, because value is, like labour sans phrase, a much more historically and socially specific beast than is captured by the forms of theoretical argument that are commonly used to demonstrate its existence and explore its characteristics. In Marx’s words:

The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.

In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:

5 beds = 1 house – (clinai pente anti oiciaς)

is not to be distinguished from

5 beds = so much money. – (clinai pente anti … oson ai pente clinai)

He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. (out isothς mh oushς snmmetriaς). Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible (th men oun alhqeia adunaton), that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

From this point, it becomes clear that the forms of argument paraded onto the main text of Capital are part of this work’s distinctive presentational strategy – which will often present forms of argument that are intended to be the targets of the critique. This does not mean that the text is as dismissive of the conclusions reached through these arguments: Marx will often preserve a conclusion; the forms of argument displayed, however, are rarely the means through which Marx would support a conclusion himself, and they are quite often sent-up, burlesque renditions of forms of argument Marx regards as absurd, drawn in exaggerated outlines designed to caricature the original position, thus magnifying and clarifying the nature of its absurdity. And, even where Marx does preserve a conclusion, he often does so only in a perverse or counter-intuitive form – in a way that demonstrates that truths held sacred by particular theoretical positions can be retained only at the cost of acknowledging other truths from which that tradition would recoil in horror. Conclusions are preserved by translating them beyond the recognition of their original advocates, by bounding and limiting them to minuscule eddies within a vast torrent of conflicting social currents, by deriving them through forms of analysis that show their intrinsic interconnection with the basest elements of collective life.

The glee with which Marx effects this argument in Capital retains the sadistic emotional charge with which he excoriates his German ideologists. High theorists are to be made to confront the mundane practical origins that render their insights plausible, the most cherished and rarified sensibilities demonstrated to arise in the crass and common maelstrom of everyday collective life.

At the same time, however, the argument is reflexively fueled by Marx’s belief that human thought does not range very free from our practical experiences – we easily intuit only what we collectively do, and we think in doing before we articulate and distill those practical thoughts into any explicit form. Small shifts in apparently trivial forms of everyday collective experience thus serve as accidental incubators for new practical potentials – potentials which can be articulated theoretically – an articulation that can be practically important in its own turn, as an enabling force for active appropriation of accidental practical insights.

Architechtonically, Capital embodies this commitment – and this is one of the things that makes the text so very difficult to parse. It first does. Then it articulates. In the more explicit methodological reflections in the fourth section of the opening chapter, Marx states this explicitly:

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him.

The text is reflexive: Marx is not here talking only about other people – those flawed theorists out there who think in this peculiar after-the-fact sort of way. This is how he thinks of himself, when he is thinking about capitalism. This is how Capital is structured – as this sort of demonstration, then post festum process of making explicit what has just been done, in a way that makes it possible to articulate the doing in a way that increases the potential to appropriate our practical insights to construct alternative forms of collective life.

So the opening chapter stages this cryptic play. Then the second chapter says explicitly that, in this work, we will often be dealing with characters on an economic stage – a passage often misinterpreted since the playlike structure of the opening chapter, which is done, but not declared until after, is overlooked. Ironically, the passage in chapter 2 that makes this point explicit is itself often misinterpreted – as implying a base/superstructure analysis of the more conventional kind – as implying that Marx thinks that people are merely passive ciphers, determined by objective forces beyond their control. Instead, he thinks we are actors – in a rich sense. We do. And, in doing, we think. And through these thoughts and actions we create possibilities. Unanticipated possibilities, whose consequences we have not thought through or predicted in advance. And, having done this, we can – just possibly – think again, and in new ways opened up by our new practical experiences, and we can perhaps articulate, make explicit, and render more accessible for further practice new possibilities for future forms of collective life.

22 responses to “Debasing the Superstructure

  1. Pingback: Links 9/5/10 | The Luxemburgist

  2. Pingback: How to read Marx | khukuri

  3. Chuckie K September 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    “Marx thinks that people are merely passive ciphers” – I’ve never run into this interpretation of Marx. Who says it?

  4. N Pepperell September 15, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Hi Chuckie K – It’s mainly a position that comes up in fairly basic critiques of Marx – i.e., in critiques where the name “Marx” is serving itself as a cipher for some notion of crass economic reductionism. I’ve occasionally run across it from people who ought to know better, but generally in the course of a polemic where someone is breaking with Marx. But the passage from the beginning of chapter 2 is sometimes used even by those who wouldn’t think that Marx /generally/ denies agency, to argue that, e.g., his position has “tensions” or is “inconsistent”, because they perceive it to alternate between economic (or structuralist) reductionism, on the one hand, and invocations of agency, on the other…

    I’m happy, though, if it seems unreasonable to lots of people to interpret Marx this way 🙂 – I think so too… I just find myself, in practice, often fielding questions about this when I present on Marx…

  5. Chuckie K September 15, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Ah, ignoramuses. Say no more.

    With the social science context of your interperetation, I have assumed you were talking about real criticisms.

  6. N Pepperell September 16, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Yeah, no – at the moment I more have this on the brain. 🙂

  7. Chuckie K September 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Leaving aside ‘self-organizing,’ my take would be:

    *critique* of political economy = (‘economics’ = pseudo-science)

    *economy* NOT= (natural phenomenon, mathematically describable)

    productive activity = social & historical process

    THEREFORE apparent surface regularities have different underlyind causal complexes & each particular case must be analyzed in itself

    for the ‘economy’ per se, Marx = set of important parameters of variation, hence the striking resemblence to later economics, but minus the autonomy of the categories

    OR dialectical historical materialism =

    1) materialism = things are real and determined by internal properties
    2) dialectics = processes and not things
    3) historical = the human process is history
    by inference, ‘economics’ studies human activities in their historical development, not a mechanical system like physics or astronomy.
    1) dialectics = processes, not things

  8. Chuckie K September 17, 2010 at 7:22 am

    I was rushing last night. 2) should break down to

    2) a) processes, not things
    b) all processes internally complex
    c) the multiple components of processes interact reciprocally.

  9. N Pepperell September 17, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Chuckie K – I’m running like mad at the moment, but just wanted to duck in quickly to say that I particularly like what you’ve said in the comment just above. I’ve also tried to make a distinction – or, I guess, just make the point – that practices have multiple levels of consequence, some of them fairly immediate and easy to discern, and some of them operating further downstream, arising only if those practices are combined with other sorts of practices, and operate in tandem in complex ways to generate particular downstream consequences. Those downstream consequences are easy to miss – and also easy to misattribute to only one of the sorts of practices required to bring them into being, so that the effects of a whole complex process are reduced down to something much more fragmentary than what is actually required to bring that consequence about. So, e.g., “labour” appears to generate certain consequences because it is… labour, rather than because, for us, labour is done in a specific way, which interacts with specific other sorts of practices, which generates consequences that in no way necessarily inhere in labouring activities in any intrinsic way.

    This is probably very very badly expressed – but I’m late!!! So it’ll have to do for now… 🙂

  10. Chuckie K September 20, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Engel’s used the term ‘parallelogram of forces,’ borrowed from Newton, to describe these complexities. Definigna curve through linear vectors. I don’t think he means to suggest that an adequate calculus could eventually make the interactions more predictable, but that the outcomes are not simply additive or linear.

  11. N Pepperell September 21, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Sorry for the delay replying – long week – but yes, absolutely: I’ve argued that Marx suggests something similar with his image of the ellipse – where the idea isn’t literally to calculate any sort of equation for a point at which the balance of forces stabilises into some specific pattern, but instead to highlight that you’ll get aggregate effects that are only comprehensible as the results of forces that, seen in isolation, point in divergent directions. This sets up for a critique of many traditional political economic positions as positions that only take a partial view of the overarching system – looking in isolation at tendencies that, in practice, are actually checked by counter-tendencies, so that no given tendency will ever fully “realise” itself, because it operates in tension with competing tendencies. Where this isn’t recognised, theorists make inappropriate linear extrapolations from trends that only play out in real practice in a stunted and partial form. Apologies again for the loose phrasing – rushing as always these days…

  12. Chuckie K September 22, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Well, YOu will have to pardon me, but I have written about three pages of comments in response to this post. I’m splitting them up into a series of comments.

    I am going to comment on some length on this attempt to dilute the notions of the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’ and the determinative influence of the former on the latter. This question provided a good opportunity to address my fundamental reservation about the nature of your interpretation of Marx. As I understand Marx, you reinterpretation of his work into the terms of social science modeling obscures the key concept of ‘class’ and its implications.

    The example of the state illustrates Marx’ conclusions about the relations between the base and my concerns above how you represent those conclusions. For most Marxists, the state is the most important component of the superstructure. I would agree that the precedence of the productive base over the superstructure is not ontological or conceptual. That precedence is historical and practical. As point of departure, the German Ideology could suggest that ideology the is the most important manifestation of the superstructure. But I want to look how Marx discusses the base and superstructure in The Civil War in France, a work little discussed on the left today.
    To describe the relation between institutions and productive activities, Marx selected technical terms from construction. You have to build the foundation before you build the structure above it. Both are integral parts of a single project, both result from an integrate design, both embody human labor. That far, I believe we agree. The construction of a state requires productive activities to provide a requisite aggregate surplus above subsistence to support those who work in the state and do not directly produce material goods. Once it exists, the state functions primarily to organize the production and appropriation of this surplus. The aggregate surplus allows for a division of labor. In these two relationships the state presupposes a productive base of a particular scope and sophistication.
    The state also presupposes and reflects the productive base in a more specific way. To appreciate this determination we need to consider the way Marx and Marxists characterize the productive base. Conventionally, the base is analyzed into two components. The first is the ‘forces of production,’ the implements and materials used in the process of production. The second, and the crucial one for the question of the base and superstructure, is the ‘relations of production,’ the relations between the people engaged in the process of production. At that level of aggregate surplus that allows the construction of a state, these relations are class relations. The function of the state to organize production and appropriate the surplus requires it to coerce and oppress the resistance of the workers in production. The class relationship necessitates the construction of a state. In this second way, the base determines the superstructure. I passing we might note that any time Marx refers to ‘class’ he is referring to the base and identifying the phenomenon as constituted out of class relationships.

  13. Chuckie K September 22, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    The best example for the kind of connection I have described here is in The Civil War in France. This work is particularly important because it analyzes the first great revolutionary uprising of the working class after the spread of capitalism through Europe. In response the revolt in Paris that created the Paris Commune and its brutal repression by the French army, the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association tasked Marx with the writing of this analysis for distribution among the members of the International and the press. The organization, political and public character of the analysis and the fact that Marx wrote it after more than twenty years of continuous activism in the struggle of the working class make it so important to understanding Marx’ ideas.
    Now I have to ask you to indulge me in lengthy quote from pages 54-55 of the edition first issued by International Publishers in 1940.
    “The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggles against feudalism. Still, its development remained clogged by all manner of medieval rubbish, seigniorial rights, local privileges, municipal and guild monopolies and provincial constitutions. The gigantic broom of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century swept away all those relics of bygone times, thus clearing simultaneously the social soil of its last hindrances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice raised under the First Empire, itself the offspring of the coalition wars of old semi-feudal Europe against modern France. During the subsequent regimes … its political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society. At the same time at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened and intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism. After every revolution marking a progressive phase of the class struggle, the purely repressive character of the state power stands out in bolder and bolder relief. (54-55)
    In this passage Marx mentions four ways in which the base determines the superstructural construction of the state. First, and most generally, the ramification of the subordinate organs of the state presupposes and employs the division of labor, systematic and hierarchical, found in the capitalist base. Second, the organic metaphor of soil somewhat surprisingly suggest that the base, capitalist production, provides resources, nutrients, that go beyond the transfer of models and means, the raw materials. Third, as capitalism developed,this development changed the political nature of the state. The forms and functions of the state responded directly to the changes in the base. Finally, specifically, the political changes necessitated by the economic changes made the state a more and more repressive, coercive institution, an instrument of force, a weapon in the class struggle.

  14. Chuckie K September 22, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    In the following paragraphs Marx specifies three aspects of these relationships. First, Marx describes the counter-revolutionary forces, “… the ‘Party of Order’ – a combination formed by all the rival fractions and factions of the appropriating class in their now openly declared antagonism to the producing classes. The proper form of their joint-stock government was the parliamentary republic. (55) The legal form of corporation, the collective integration of individual capitals into a distinct corporate entity, corresponds to the parliamentary form, the collective integration of individual voters and districts into a political distinct entity. Second, Marx describes the unique electoral and representative system created by the Commune, “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business.” (59) The election and electoral accountability of communal representatives attributes to communal elections and voting the same function as the prerogative exercised by the capitalist in selecting his employees. The hierarchical relationships, authority and purposes found in the capitalist enterprise also characterize the operations of the state. They differ in which class exercises the prerogatives and which class defines the purposes. In both form and function, the state, the central component of the superstructure, is directly determined by the forms and functions of the productive base. Finally, Marx characterizes the political and social nature of the Commune itself, “It was essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” (60) The political nature of the state under capitalist rule compels the workers to create a state of their own in order to attain the goals of their social struggles. The fundamental class relationship requires the workers to replace the old state with one of their own making. The relations of production permeate the superstructure, they shape its forms, they shape its functions, they decide the imperative of its existence and destruction.
    What is true for the state is true for the struggle against the old state and for the new. Marx describes the International, “Our Association is, in fact, nothing but the international bond between the most advanced working men in the various countries of the civilized world. Wherever, in whatever shape, and under whatever conditions the class struggle obtains any consistency, it is but natural that members of our Association should stand in the foreground. The soil out of which it grows is modern society itself. It cannot be stamped out with any amount of carnage. To stamp it out, the governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labour – the condition of their own parasitical existence.”(81) He returns to the organic metaphor of the soil. The class struggle results organically from the relations of production that define capitalism. Not automatically or mechanically, but necessarily. The only way to end the struggle would be to remove the soil. Capitalism faces self-annihilation or revolution.

  15. Chuckie K September 22, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Accordingly, to say that Marx, “thinks we are actors,’ understates the specificity of Marx’ conclusions and the particularity of his model. He thinks we are members of the working class and that we must engage in revolutionary struggle to completely replace the political institutions that govern us in order to secure the freedom that will allow us to create the “future forms of collective life.” In a time when pervasive media pervasively spread bourgeois values and realize bourgeois relations, I can understand why it is important to assert that the freedom to think even exists. And I know that raising the red flag of revolutionary struggle is not the activity of the lecture hall. Or career building. But Marx constructed his scientific method and analyses to establish and explain the thorough determinative influence of class in capitalist society and to draw the political conclusions determined by that influence.

  16. N Pepperell September 23, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Hi Chuckie K – I suspect the bulk of what you’ve posted above stems from a confusion about the status of most of what I’ve been posting on Marx – one thing that isn’t clear from the blog, because I’ve spent so much time here writing on meta-theoretical issues, is that I understand most of the things I’ve been writing about so far to be basically preliminaries: metatheoretical issues. I haven’t gotten around yet to writing much about what I think of Marx’s actual /theory/ – theory of capitalism, theory of revolution – the things, in other words, that would matter for most real-world purposes.

    So, for example, when you mention above that “to say that Marx, “thinks we are actors,’ understates the specificity of Marx’ conclusions and the particularity of his model”: this is obvious, and, I think, results from a misunderstanding of why I’ve been making the argument about “actors”. I’ve focused on this in some recent posts, not in order to clarify anything about Marx’s conception of revolutionary agents, but in order to say something about a small part of a much larger argument, in Capital, about the practical resources available to be appropriated – as socially general human capacities, cultivated as a coercive side-effect in the course of capitalist production. The experience that some sorts of social roles can be readily cast aside is not particularly emancipatory as it is enacted in the current context: particular kinds of roles are routinely adopted and discarded as part of the process by which capitalism is reproduced.

    So when I speak about capitalism making stage metaphors particularly important, I’m not trying to say that this does anything useful in and of itself, or that it makes everyone in some undifferentiated sense a revolutionary, or that it’s the final word Marx has to say on revolutionary agency. It’s instead one of the most preliminary things Marx has to say – it’s said fairly explicitly in the opening to the second chapter of Capital – and it’s one of a number of very early, fairly abstract, capacities that Marx thinks are available to be appropriated in some way that might make these accidental historical insights useful in some properly revolutionary way.

    I haven’t gotten to the point, online, of saying much about the actual theory of capitalism, about Marx’s conception of the working class and class conflict, and about a whole range of other quite central issues, because I’ve mainly been blogging about metatheoretical preliminaries, and also focusing on the opening six chapters of Capital, which are not the places, within Capital where Marx discusses the sorts of issues that you’re raising.

    I’ve been emphasising these very early passages, not because I think they’re the most important thing in Marx’s work, but just because I’m trying to crawl – at admittedly a very slow pace – through the whole of Capital, mining it for a set of very detailed resources that I think are not normally recognised to be in the work.

    Some of those resources are only important academically – they help me demonstrate that Marx offers much better tools than other forms of social theory, for dealing with the complexity of capitalism. I spend so much time on the metatheoretical aspects of Marx’s work for this reason: I get very impatient with most other forms of social theory for not using tools that make it easier at least to thematise the existence of social complexity and contradiction, and so I’ve drilled in on how Marx does this even in passages in these very early chapters that are often understood to be simple “definitional” passages that aren’t doing much theoretical work. I’d like social theory – even the mainstream stuff – to have better tools for handling complexity and contradictory social trends: I think we might get less stupid public policy if this were the case. And so I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to make the thematisation of complexity look as simple to do, as I can make it look.

    Unfortunately, this probably also has the side effect of making it look like I think the most important thing Marx does is put forward a set of programmatic principles for general social theory. I understand where the impression comes from, and why the approach I’m taking might be frustrating. But everything I’ve written here so far is massively preliminary – it’s a prolegomenon to what actually interests me, which is the theory of capitalism itself. To discuss that adequately, however, I need to get well beyond chapter six of Marx’s work…

    You might not end up any happier, of course, when I do that 🙂 I think that Capital puts forward a complex critique of certain forms of working class politics – forms that it thinks are both necessary and yet can also operate as part of the reproduction of capital. So the working day chapter, for example, presents a form of political contestation that is expressly described as operating on the playing field where the law of value also operates. You can’t dispense with this sort of politics – over working conditions, pay, the distribution of social wealth – but Capital is also an intervention trying to tilt the balance of working class militancy toward larger goals: goals of appropriating for the working class the socially general resources that, under current conditions, are appropriated for the reproduction of capital.

    So the text spends a lot of time – in later chapters as well as early ones – drawing constant attention to those socially general capacities, and reflecting on the ambivalent character of those capacities: how, under current conditions, they are mobilised to reproduce an oppressive social system, but how this current role does not preclude the possibility of appropriating these resources for a radically different form of collective life.

    And one of the goals is to try to intervene in working class politics itself – to encourage it to move beyond the sorts of conflicts that play out “under the law of commodity production”, into conflicts that Marx regards as more revolutionary, because they involve the working class abolishing itself as a working class, and appropriating socially general resources that, under capitalism, are distorted and stunted into oppressive forms.

    The sorts of metatheoretical preliminaries I’ve been talking about for the past few years are part of this argument, but only part of it. It doesn’t manifest on the blog how much I regard what I’ve been writing so far as a sort of vast preliminary digression – the real argument still needs to be written…

    I realise this offers a promissory note that no one needs to accept until I’m actually able to cash it out. And, as I said, it may be that you wouldn’t specifically like what I have to say when I do. But if it helps in any sense, I’m not trying to say that what I’ve outlined so far is in any way fully specifying Marx’s argument – quite the opposite. I’ve extracted a small number of the most abstract positions that can be drawn from Capital, with the intent of moving to more and more concrete levels of the analysis from here. My starting point – what led me to read Marx closely – is not related to these metatheoretical issues, but to the desire to understand capitalism, and to understand the possibility for emancipatory transformation. What I’ve written so far barely scratches at the issues that interest me most. It may be an irrationally long run-up, but I don’t think the end goal is quite as meta as it plausibly appears from what’s here now…

  17. Nate December 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    hey NP,

    I hope you’re well. As usual I’m behind and can’t keep up and as usual you lay out great ideas like you’ve got loads of them just lying around in fat stacks and as usual you’re apologetic for merely managing these feats of brilliance instead of other ones…! (That’s a compliment, just to make sure that clear.)

    You seem to me to minimize the importance of your work (respectfully, I think you do this overly so, though I think your humility speaks well of you, if you don’t mind me saying so) as you describe its uses and limits for your interests. And yet, there’s some relationship hear between your work and Marx’s work, I mean, you’re talking in part about — you’re developing ideas in part through — moves that Marx makes. I mean, It struck me reading this that I think elements of what you describe as metatheoretical preliminaries to the work you really want to do (with at least some of the metatheory extracted from Marx) could also apply to the earlier bits of v1 of Capital that you’re focusing on. (As I think we’ve discussed, I often feel really impatient with those early bits of Capital, but not so with with your work.) So I wonder if you’d mind saying more about (some of?) Marx’s metatheoretical moves and how it relates to the rest of what he’s doing, and how much relative autonomy there is between that meta level and the other levels of the work. Sorry I can’t ask that question more clearly.

    Happy New Year to you and yours.

    take care,

  18. john January 6, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Wow, that’s a long stream of comments that’s getting into some really interesting issues, but I’m afraid I just wanted to make a couple of comments on the original piece.

    Firstly I very much like where you’re going with this. Your notion of the “debasement of the superstructure” accords very well with an old bugbear of mine about how to read Marx and Engel’s use of the term “ideology”. On my interpretation this term carries no signification of apologetics, class-interested ideas, noble lies, much less “false consciousness” as its typically been interpreted by Marxists (you are right to point that this latter concept is precisely what Marx and Engels are ridiculing in the German Ideology), but rather quite simply corresponds to the kind of detached intellectual “self-puffery” which Marx spends so much of his time deflating, what you call “disembodied and decontextualised thought.”

    But I’d like to press you a bit on some of your conclusions, because I think there’s a lot more that could be said about this. I think the question that usually comes up is what is “disembodied and decontextualised thought” disembodied and decontextualised FROM? What is the proper body and context of thought? The answer you seem to give is “mundane and everyday forms of practice.” I think this is a good answer if its understood as a highly complex and contradictory totality, but it still seems too abstract to grasp the problem of detachment and debasement as it exists for Marx. It raises questions like: isn’t abstract thought itself a kind of practice, one that could even be seen as mundane and everyday? It also makes it hard to understand why the causal relation that is obscured is the one that rises up from the “base”, i.e. why debasement is necessary, and thus makes us resort to all manner of speculative theories as to why thought would tend to ignore its relation to mundane practice, the most common of which is that its somehow in the interests of “the system” to blind us to them. Your suggestion that thought which misunderstands its mundane origins tends to reproduce those mundane origins, while not making a functionalist argument in this respect, does point in this direction.

    But my problem with this is not so much the analytical quandaries or the functionalist conclusions of this line of thought as the epistemological problematic that it gets one into. Such problematics seem to me alien to Marx, who when he does explicitly deal with intellectual detachment in the German Ideology writes that from the moment of the division of mental and manual labor appear “consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness ‘of existing practice'” – i.e. intellectuals tend to think they are detached from practice because in some sense they really are. Why then the perpetual need to debase intellectuals? I don’t really have the answer to this question, but I would suggest that it might be sought in a wider definition of both “practice” and “detachment.”

    I would point to the fact that in the section on unproductive labor in Theories of Surplus Value Marx seems to identify the terms “superstructural” “ideological” and “unproductive”. Now of course there’s been much controversy over the meaning of unproductive labor, but it was clearly an important category for Marx. Is there thus a connection to be made between detachment from practice and detachment from production? Does this in some ways explain the incorporation of the state and the legal system into both the “superstructural” and the “ideological” realms? (I always find it interesting that Marx lists “soldiers” as members of the “ideological classes” in Capital) But also does it imply that there is something like a Master-Slave dialectic at work in relation to BOTH the intellectuals AND the state – i.e. that they think they are the real agents of history and that everyone else – the producers they are detached from – are simply carrying out their bidding (either of law or logic), when in fact it’s the other way around? My suggestion would be that the “ideological” and “superstructural” are all debased by Marx in the same way he debases (or deflates) the self-puffery of the intellectual because in each case it is a matter of an illusory autonomy of this or that sector as abstract driving force. But furthermore perhaps (dare I say it?) because for Marx “mundane and everyday forms of practice” is not just a synonym for the totality – it indicates a specific position (re/producer) that is given a kind of ultimate historical agency. I don’t know if any of this is the right answer, but what I like about this possibility is it suggests a socio-historical rather than an epistemological (or functionalist) account of the problem of detachment.

    Well that’s a crazy long comment to add to a crazy long thread. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking your thought process here, I’m obviously a bit wrapped up in theses issues, and I’m not sure if what I’m saying really makes sense, but I hope you continue these excellent reflections.

  19. N Pepperell January 11, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Hey john – sorry to leave you hanging for so long. I’ve had a recurrent obligation that leaves me very very little time online.

    Unfortunately, my impulse is to say that much of what you’re asking can’t be answered adequately in this format – some sorts of answers require a careful systematic presentation, at some length, to suspend in some coherent form the things I think Marx is doing. While I’ve scattered the elements of the systematic answer through dozens of posts on the blog, the format obscures a great deal of what I’m trying to say – hopefully the book will dispel some of the confusion (although, to be honest, some things are not going to be clear until the next book… so I’m sympathetic with a fair amount of scepticism or just confusion about what sort of answer I’m going to be able to provide).

    This post, by the way, has been expanded and turned into a longer draft article, which would address a bit of what you’re asking – if you want a copy, just email.

    In terms of dynamics of debasement and why specific forms of social practice (because yes, of course, more academic practices are still just social practices as well): there are several layers of answer to this sort of question. One layer is that Marx himself gets annoyed with certain kinds of academic discourse – we don’t have to share that annoyance, but it’s there, and it’s one of the things driving his privileging of more “everyday” forms of practice. He loves to scandalise – and the people who would be scandalised are the intellectuals who think of what they do as something rarified and detached – there’s a sadistic enjoyment, in Marx’s work, in debasing things that privilege themselves and understand themselves as a special sort of practice that is purportedly more precious than other things humans do.

    That layer aside, however, by Capital Marx is also making an argument about why the specific qualitative characteristics of a particular dimension of contemporary human practices are quite likely to be articulated in a specifically “idealist” way. The argument is hideously complex, and in my experience really needs to be spelled out systematically to communicate – I won’t try to reproduce it here. But the punchline, so to speak, is that there are specific kinds of embodiment, associated with the reproduction of capital, that experience themselves as disembodied – specific kinds of socially and historically specific practice that are experienced as asocial and ahistorical.

    The idea that Marx is trying to do this is of course not specific to my work – it’s there programmatically, for example, in Postone. It’s just that Postone doesn’t, in my view, actually cash out the programmatic claim: at base, his argument relies on the same sorts of claims that he criticises when made by others. I’m trying, among other things, to suggest the sort of argument that would be required to talk intelligibly, consistently, and concretely about what it would mean to cash out these sorts of claims.

    However. A comment box really isn’t able to contain the argument. So, when I try to abbreviate what I’m doing into this format, unfortunately I can’t do any more than make programmatic claims myself. This becomes particularly problematic, as there are whole literatures that make programmatic claims, and then stop – as though the program is the end goal… I’m trying not to do this – trying not, for example, to insist on the importance of “Concrete Practices”, and instead to actually spell out specific actual practices, and analyse their relations, etc. But the argument Marx makes, if I’m understanding him correctly, is simply vastly more detailed and specific than many readings of his work – many interpreters end up essentially discarding vast swathes of the text, without recognising the work those parts of the text are doing, without grasping the empirical referents of the argument. But unearthing this stuff requires a slower pace, and a more extended sort of discussion, than I can have easily online. Which is frustrating to me, as I find online discussion of most issues useful, and I would like to use the blog to clarify these sorts of issues. But at a certain level of complexity, the medium breaks down for me – at least it does right now… Which is the reason I’m trying to get this stuff out in a more adequate form offline…

    But yes: Marx tries to debase the sense of autonomy that various groups attribute to their own actions and thoughts. But even this point can be made in too one-sided a way. There is a fair amount of internal autonomy within the process by which capital is reproduced. Not enough that you can make sound analysis by zeroing in on some component trend, and extrapolating from it as though it could proceed unchecked in a linear way. But enough that real, material effects – some of them potentially useful for political contestation – exert their own logics, even as they contribute to the reproduction of the more complex whole.

    Marx scatters little examples of these sorts of local logics, and local (bounded) autonomies everywhere throughout Capital. This sort of analysis is almost entirely missing, however, from many interpretations of Marx that focus on social form – which is one of the major reasons that such analyses tend to be explicitly or tacitly pessimistic: by zeroing in on one dimension of Marx’s analysis (that, in and through the apparent chaos of everyday life, a sort of nefarious, nonrandom, nonchaotic “spontaneous order” manifests itself in and through the unintentional reproduction of a specific social form), they miss that the process by which this form is reproduced contains its own diverse contents – and, in this diversity, the recurrent generation and regeneration of alternative potentials for the development of new forms of social life. (Wandering here a bit more into points you’ve raised at Nate’s – apologies…)

    But my main point is that I’m not sure I can answer the sorts of questions you’re raising here, because I need a few hundred pages of run-up to do it adequately… But I’m working as quickly as I can to get a better presentation of the argument into the world… So more soon, hopefully less truncated, abstract and hand-waving as this…

  20. john January 15, 2011 at 2:42 am

    I totally understand, I wasn’t really expecting a simple answer. I look forward to following your thoughts on this subject as you expand and develop them in the future.

  21. Marcus January 20, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Hi Nicole and others

    Writing my first contribution to this blog from Thailand while on holiday. Though this is the first thread I’ve fully read, my respect for Nicole’s work is not really based on a number of brief conversations with her at RMIT and a talk she gave at one conference but rather that immediate feeling of comradeship – if you know what I mean.

    Nicole also knows that I like to be provocative – so I will try not to disappoint.

    I downloaded a pdf version Capital Vol 1 from the Marx Engels Internet Archive and found that the word ‘superstructure’ is mentioned only once. It is in a footnote (34) in Chapter 1 at the end of the following paragraph:

    “Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely,32 value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.33 These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Hence forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.34”

    In this footnote 34 Marx says (in part):

    “I seize this opportunity of shortly answering an objection taken by a German paper in America, to my work, ―Zur Kritik der Pol. Oekonomie, 1859.‖ In the estimation of that paper, my view that each special mode of production and the social relations corresponding to it, in short, that the economic structure of society, is the real basis on which the juridical and political superstructure is raised and to which definite social forms of thought correspond; that the mode of production determines the character of the social, political, and intellectual life generally, all this is very true for our own times, in which material interests preponderate, but not for the middle ages, in which Catholicism, nor for Athens and Rome, where politics, reigned supreme. In the first place it strikes one as an odd thing for any one to suppose that these well-worn phrases about the middle ages and the ancient world are unknown to anyone else. This much, however, is clear, that the middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.”

    Now, I’m not saying that Nicole’s focus on Marx’s discursive styles and methods needed to centred on this comment about the superstructure, nor even play a very prominent role in her discussion. Like slow cooking, Nicole’s slow mining of ‘resources’, ‘tools’ and ‘principles’ which can be appropriated for subsequent critique is not only methodologically, intellectually and politically entirely defensible. It is also potentially practical (though her work cannot be reductively judged against such a criteria). For myself, and I presume most of those reading and contributing to this blog (including Nicole), there is one proviso. That it be a marxist mining (in the philosophical, theoretical and political ideas Nicole embraces/struggles with as marxism). Given that Marx does actually raise the concept of the superstructure in Chapter 1, SOME mention of it is, within Nicole’s own criteria, necessary.

    That quibble aside, there are more important issues. Nicole correctly (in my view) rejects dichotomising base and superstructure. As Alisdair McIntyre said in ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’:

    ‘in creating the basis, you create the superstructure. These are not two activities but one….The crucial character of the transition to socialism is not a change in the economic base but what is a revolutionary change in the relation of base to superstructure’.

    What I find problematic is an inconsistent dialectical tension in the relationship between base and superstructure used by Nicole. For example, her discussion of this relationship is conceptualised as one between ‘high theoretical discourse and more mundane forms of everyday practice’. Was not Marx’s scathing critique of the young Hegelians, aptly described by Nicole, not only a disabusing series of ‘debasing’ criticisms but also a ‘re-basing’ historical critique? That is, as Nicole points out, Marx’s method of critique ‘finds value (truth) in the burlesque style he deploys’. This limitation of only deploying the idea of debasing is not just some semantic difference – it tends to have real analytical consequences on occasions. For example, Nicole considers those enraptured by other high theories may be ‘accidently wrested from historical experience’. Maybe this was simply a 3.00am slip, but Marx’s whole critique centred on uncovering the historical experience of those promoting these high theoretical agents, not denying their experience.

    Finally, because its the small hours hours here in Thailand, one last plea. Where is the agential tension in the more mundane forms of everyday practices with the superstructure? That is, if these are not to be dichotomistic notions, then how does the mundane also contain the potential for high theoretical discourse?

  22. N Pepperell January 20, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Hey Marcus – good to see you commenting! And apologies that this won’t be much of a reply – I have a backlog of other work offline, and only a very short window, now that selection has ended, to get things done before the teaching term intervenes again… So this will probably be something that I need to take up again in a calmer time…

    I agree (and thought I said in this post, but haven’t re-read it in some time, so apologies if it was omitted) that the base/superstructure language really is in Marx – and, unlike some other terms, I don’t think this is a language that Marx experiments with, and then moves away from: there is something in the language that hits at substantive points in Marx’s later works. Although I do think that the focus on this language specifically is sort of disproportionate in the literature – but I’m not saying this to argue that the language isn’t there – I’m more trying to establish what this sort of terminology means in the context of Marx’s work.

    I’m not completely certain why you would think that I am positing that Marx is denying experience? This may just be a terminological issue – I may be saying something in an odd way? Or it may be that I’m presupposing certain things because they’ve been said elsewhere on the blog, but I’m not making it adequately clear in this post.

    But my basic argument is that Marx criticises political economy (and other things…), not so much for being wrong, but for failing to understand why it is right. Generally, Marx grounds the “rightness” of other forms of theory through a move that basically amounts to: “it’s right, but only for one small aspect of social experience, and only if that aspect of social experience is viewed from a specific perspective”. Having shown in what respect a particular theoretical claim is “right” in this partial and bounded way, he’ll then move on to show how it’s also wrong – by subjecting other dimensions of social experience to the same sort of analysis, and thus reflexively demonstrating all the aspects of social experience that would never be able to come clearly into view, if we limited ourselves to the bounded outlooks put forward by the theorists being criticised.

    But perhaps I’ve misunderstood what you were asking here?

    I do, however, think that various historical resources were constituted “accidentally” – as in, Marx’s vision of agency involves an appropriation of resources (a making of history), from conditions we have not chosen. In this sense he operates a bit like Darwin: we hack the materials lying ready to hand, in the existing society, in order to generate new forms of collective life. Marx thinks this process – hacking and generating – has taken place in the past, but largely blindly. He thinks that something has changed to open the possibility of engaging in the same process – but less blindly – now. If that make sense…

    In terms of agency: this is part of what I try to flesh out in the longer work – it’s one of the things that I need to lay out a lot of different concepts, in a specific order, in order to feel like I’m doing justice to what Marx is trying to say. One of the major arguments in the thesis is that Marx is trying to analyse, not simply the social constitution of particular sorts of agents, but of specific kinds of agency – and the potential for these kinds of agency relies on the simultaneous confrontation with many different aspects of social experience, which operate together to suggest the sort of active appropriation and reconfiguration of historical materials that Marx is performing analytically in Capital, and that he also thinks certain kinds of social movements can also perform.

    As to why the mundane contains the potential for particular kinds of high theoretical discourse: this has a similarly complex answer, and requires the simultaneous suspension of a lot of different strands of Marx’s argument – I find it difficult to do on the blog (although I’m hoping I eventually get more efficient at it…).

    But I will say that this is a problem that, I believe, Marx gets much better at answering as his work develops – which is in part why this post, which goes backward into some of Marx’s earlier works, leaves some of what you’re asking unresolved – I feel more comfortable putting forward the resolution when I’m writing about a work like Capital, where I think Marx cashes out much better some points that are made programmatically, but not fleshed out as well, in his earlier works.

    So, the answers hinted in a work like The German Ideology are more simplistic than the answers he gives in the Grundrisse, which are in turn more simplistic than the answers he gives in Capital – in particular, he gets much better at theorising the practical constitution of social abstractions, moving toward – I would argue – a theory of how many different sorts of concrete social practices need to operate in tandem in order to generate certain kinds of real abstractions as emergent effects.

    The complex, indirect, tandem process required to generate these abstractions, and the qualitative characteristics of the abstractions generated, make particular kinds of “high theory” socially plausible – intuitively primed by practical experience, but primed in a way that can plausibly be interpreted as a result of a disembodied cognition (even though, in Marx’s argument, it is actually a peculiar form of embodied cognition that perceives and experiences itself in such a disembodied form).

    But the argument is too complicated, at least for me right now, to be able to summarise in any sort of convincing way in this form. It needs a long – very long – run up, which runs through what Marx calls the “microscopic anatomy” that he carries out on a large number of mundane social practices. Without that, it just sounds a bit hand wavy and vague 🙂

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