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Contra Lukács: Capitalism is not a totality, and never was.

One of the stranger moments in debates on Marxist theory is that somehow capitalism is historically unique in that it is totality while other means of productions are not.  Now, I have already said that an undifferentiated totality is not cognitive, so capitalism is not an undifferentiated totality. However, I’d go further and say that capitalism is not a totality at all.   György Lukács thoughts on consciousness and reificaiton are enlightening but his insistence that capitalist totality predominates the modes of thought, as he stated it “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science…Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.”

The emphasis on the logic of capital to produce social relations seems to have the order exactly backwards even from a Marxist standpoint. It renders capitalism into a hypostatization, a confusion of the metaphor for the reality itself.  While what capitalism describes is  a complex web of social relations that engender a means of production which reinforces those social relationships, “capitalism” cannot produce social relations in and of itself.  Why?  This logic is entirely circular?  If capitalism is the way the classes interact in regards to the means of production, and capitalism produces the relationship between classes, then capital is the cause of its own production.  That is logic is not dialectical, its circular.

I would go more than to accuse this sort of thinking of hypostatization and say its reification in the since Marx used the term.   Verdinglichung the word Marx used that we translate as reificaiton, was used in Marx both in ascribing human relations to a thing (i.e. a fetish) and ascribing thingness to an idea (i.e. an ideology).   A totality is not a set of social conditions as nothing total can emerge from social conditions: social conditions are an aggregate of human interaction.  Yes, there is a meta-logic to these interactions in both politics and economics: however, no interaction completely determines this rule.  While alienation ensures that many of the contradictions of the means of production are not seen for what they are, they cannot be said to produce those relationships, but are merely descriptive of the way such relationships are maintained. So I can agree with Lukács that “”The premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: ‘It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.’… Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity” but human activity is itself an aggregate process: a dialectical synthesis of the impasse between the individual and the collective. In so much, dominance of the whole to the parts  no such dialectical impasse is possible. In short, this is a mystification used to undo mystification, but is none the less still an illusion that leads to several mischaracterization of the situation.

In researching this, I discovered that I was hardly the first Marxist to make this point. Let us look at Joshua Howard Totality versus theory: Left cognition and social change

In what follows I try to show in a preliminary way how the category of totality and the attendant sense of method have both served to hinder the understanding of Marx’s critique of capital and have had an enervating effect on the ability of Western Marxists to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But this applies well beyond Western Marxism, and a lot of what I say applies to the radical Left in general. This is because the main issue, I believe, concerns a certain way of thinking about capitalist society as a total system.

From Marx’s analysis of capital, as an integrated process of production, distribution, and exchange of value, Western Marxists tend to move, largely through unsubstantiated, analogical thinking, to a theory of capitalist society as a whole, as a completely integrated system that affects everything we think and do. This generates in turn the need for an external position from which to critique this society and a frustrated desire to live outside the system. From here it is but a short step to despairing of ever achieving such a position. But, as soon as one poses the problem in terms of being “inside” or “outside” capitalism, the game is over. This is not least because of the theoretical and practical consequences that flow from Lukács’s claim about the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”

By regarding capitalism as a total system, encompassing all of society, holistic views such as Lukács’s have also included as part of capitalist totality our very consciousness, so that our inner thoughts themselves are supposed to embody or enact this all-consuming total ideology, which appears to us perfectly commonplace, or “reified” as Lukács says. Radical critics trace all problems of modern society back to capitalism. Their radicalism itself is measured by how much they refuse this total ideology and reject the entire culture. Just as capitalism is seen to mediate everything we do and think, so revolution comes to be imagined as something that entails changing all of society, down to our consciousness.

One practical consequence of this view is that revolution comes to seem impossible, because, well, a scenario in which everything changes is impossible. Social change has never and will never happen this way. And so it is hard to convince rational people of the viability of a revolution against a Lukácsian totality. If a movement to change society requires people first to adopt an entire new worldview, then perhaps we should wonder whether such a vision of social change is not solely a construct of the intelligentsia built into a vision of the world with which they flatter themselves, rather than as a genuinely emancipatory vision opening a viable path towards real social change to benefit everyone.

A second theoretical consequence is that once the ontological priority of the whole over the parts is posited, including the dependence of thought on society, then one must also posit the impossibility of conceiving any alternative to this totality or a theory of how any change is possible. As products of the whole, everything that is thought reflects that whole and is bound by it.

To Howard’s points I add the following: Giving primacy to the idea that capitalism is a totality of human relationships is actually, in a distinct way, strangely un-Marxist as it is a manifestation of alienation itself, of which reification is a sub-set of.  The idea that the old class, the ancien regime, went away is frankly foolish. It hadn’t gone away in Marx’s time even after the bourgeois revolutions, and it hasn’t gone away now either.

Take, for instances, the idea of the old regime or that feudalism has ever really gone away: both  Arno Mayer and Corey Robins have noted that pre-capitalist elements are still around in Neo-liberalism. Furthermore, it took World War 2 to finally dislodge the old regime according to Mayer.

Then we have our relationship to James Burnham, whose problematic schema of the managerial class was not answered completely by a Western Marxist. Let’s look at some examples from the The Managerial Revolution:

If the temporary workers’ control is replaced by the old control of capitalist owners (as happened in the two revolutionary crises in Germany at the end of, and a few years after, the first world war), then society, after a crisis, has simply returned to its previous capitalist structure. If workers’ control is replaced by the de facto control of the managers backed by a new kind of state, then capitalism, after a transitional crisis, has changed into managerial society. The latter, through a series of intermediary steps, is what happened in Russia.

For a while after the revolution in Russia, in many factories and other enterprises – for a very short while – the factories were run by the workers through their elected committees called “Factory Committees.” Then the “technical” direction of operations was turned over to “specialists” (that is, managers), with the Factory Committees remaining in existence and still exercising substantial control through a veto power over the managers and jurisdiction over “labour conditions.” Meanwhile, bureaus and commissions and individuals appointed from above by the new (soviet) government were beginning to take over the job of co-ordinating the efforts of various factories and branches of industry. Gradually the powers of the managers and managerial co-ordinator, increased, necessarily at the expense of “workers’ control” and the Factory Committees. The Factory Committee lost their veto powers. Their prerogative, “labour conditions,” became more and more narrowly interpreted. The Committee composition was changed to include one state representative, one managerial representative, and one man nominally representing the workers. Finally, even these Committees lost all their real power and remained as mere formalities, to be dropped altogether in 1938.

Workers’ control had been transformed into managerial control.

Mao seemed to realize this problem in the Communist block and formulated the the revolts of the cultural revolution to truly combat it. Yet he pulled back and this led to the reemergence of Deng. Stalin and his managerial stage would have simply killed Deng, but the Chinese rarely executed comrades outright for ideological defections. Still, modern China is essentially a managerial stage with elements of its pre-capitalist regime (Confucianism) coming back.

But this analytical errors in class development and change are not the only errors that emerge from this idea that capitalism is a totality. Howards points to others as well:

Ideological holism, meanwhile, holds that the dominant ideology colors everything we believe or, rather, that what we believe stems from the social system itself. A corollary of ideological holism is that the meaning of every belief depends on the believer’s social location; it requires analysis in light of the totality to establish its meaning and significance in the light of history. On this view, every belief is connected to every other belief in a web of ideology, a symbolic system or worldview that perfectly locks into this form of life. Our beliefs are further determined by where we stand in this totality. Hence, you can have a “proletarian science” as opposed to a “bourgeois science.” A new society would naturally bring with it a new belief system for its individual parts, one that we cannot begin to imagine. In a post-capitalist society we would think differently, just as now we think differently from other cultures or historical periods. This would be akin to a conversion process from one worldview or paradigm to another. This holism of belief today has many names, but the logic is the same: Lukács’s reification of consciousness is a species of standpoint epistemology, as is Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge; misunderstandings of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the appropriation in the humanities and social sciences of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm, and Michel Foucault’s epistemes or disciplinary matrices, among others, are all perspectivist viewpoints.

Furthermore, I agree with Howard when he asserted that:

“For Marx, ultimately the change that is needed is not political, at least not primarily so. Nor can the exercise of political will, however democratic, sustain socioeconomic change. Socioeconomic change will sustain any future political changes. This economic structure would be a complex, dynamic system that would have to be self-regulating in some way. The place to begin to look for what Marx conceived of as a self-sustaining socialist society is his Critique of the Gotha Program. Here Marx, the theorist of socialism, emerges from Marx, the theorist of capitalism, in Capital. If he is correct about the inner workings of the capitalist economy, his theory of capital is a good start to figure out in what ways a socialist economy would have to differ. In his Critique, socialism is conceived of as a new economic structure that would give rise to different patterns of daily life, new opportunities, and new patterns of making policy, such that individuals can better take control of their own lives—in other words, as Marx put it, the full and free development of each is the condition for the full and free development of all. And this free development depends not on political decisions but on new economic relations.”

I also agree with Howard when he asserts that:

“Holistic thinking seeks a theory of society as a whole or of history as a whole. The reason that Marx provided no such comprehensive theory of society or a theory of capitalist society is because he did not think it was necessary for his purposes and probably thought it impossible. Such a “theory” would attempt to leave nothing out and thus strive to be a theory of everything, but this would no longer be a theory in any real sense. A theory must range over a definite domain of phenomena. It must look for causal regularities and discover the causal mechanisms that underlie those regularities. That is true of theories in general, and of Marx’s theories of capital as a mode of production (conceived narrowly) and of historical materialism, in particular. Marx did not have a theory of everything, nor did he mean for his theories to explain everything.

Holistic accounts of capitalist society, on the other hand, individuate modes of production, social formations, forms of life, worldviews, paradigms, and so on, as wholes, meaning their “parts” depend on their place in the whole, rather than the whole depending on the individual parts. Thus there can be no fundamental change that is not a total change, one in which all the parts, being so dependent, are fundamentally altered. This makes no sense because, if there were no independent parts, if the whole were the only thing with any real independent existence, then there could be no change, certainly not from within the totality. We need not invoke Popper’s critique of utopian social engineering in favor of piecemeal change in order to see that there is a theoretical inadequacy in such holistic thinking. It conceives capitalist society as an abstract, undifferentiated totality and the intellectual as somehow outside it. This can lead only to an abstract negation of society because it lacks any specificity with respect to capital as a totalizing process in anything more than its strict use by Marx in reference to capital’s subsumption of labor processes. Its ineffectiveness is due to its synthetic mode of cognition linking everything to everything else, largely eschewing the theorization of the actual causal mechanisms that run through this society. As a consequence, it is also a bad method from which to think of social change. Not only is there an effacement of how the different parts of this whole relate, no guidance can be derived as to how to get from this whole to the next. If every part is subsumed under the whole, if the parts are not seen as prior to the whole, then the whole must be changed from without. Some mysterious transitionary period is usually delegated to the task of doing the actual work of moving us from capitalism to socialism, but this seems to be a placeholder for ignorance.”

The goal of Marxian analysis is communism as the end of class struggle, period. Class struggle produces capitalism as struggles between groups produce all sorts of problematic logic both within a capitalist framework and outside of it. I disagree with Howard about politicism and economism as I do not see the separation between the two that Howard does. Class struggle generates both our economy and our politics.

In this I move for theory and for political economy and away from any one super-structure reduction of human relations. You cannot fight mystification with another mystification, particularly one who offers no real way out.


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