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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 8 – Marx on Historical Materialism

According to Marx, the law of motion of a society, i.e. the particular form in which the process of exploitation takes place, determines the character of society as a whole. Now, the law of motion is  the central and determining factor not from any and all points of view, but from the point of view of the movement which is consciously aimed at the abolition of exploitation and alienation. If you take class society for granted, then the specific form of exploitation belonging to capitalist society will not be particularly remarkable. You will not, as Marx does, define societies in terms of the specific differences in the form of exploitation. You might define them as “dictatorships” versus “democracies”, or “republics” as opposed to “monarchies”, or as “godless” as opposed to “virtuous”. Of course one can use these distinctions, or others, on top of the ones Marx makes. But it is only from the specific point of view of an interest in the abolition of class that the form of exploitation can be taken to be the central and defining characteristic of a society. If exploitation is taken for granted, assumed to be a necessary and perhaps not particularly bothersome feature of all societies, you might then look upon the most important difference between, say, feudalism and modernity as the difference between an age of faith and a secular age. If you are a conservative philosopher concerned above all with “meaning” and “order”, then you might take the essential difference between modernity and feudalism to be not a difference in the form of exploitation, but that feudal society gave people what they really needed, say a greater sense of order or a lived relationship with their tradition.  The trouble with modern society is not exploitation and what it requires that people do to themselves and each other, but that faith and belief have given way to a bottomless nihilism with people running around appearing to do exactly as they please. But Marx’s point of view, oriented to the abolition of class society, will not take a supposedly “human” moral failing as the essential difference.

From that point of view one of the most remarkable immediate consequences of capitalism’s law of motion is the necessity of expanded accumulation. “Grow or die” is a fundamental law of the capitalist economy. Everything is therefore subordinated to the top priority of the continuous expansion of surplus value. Without that growth in surplus value, capitalist society faces urgent crises which, if not overcome relatively quickly by a restoration of rising “productivity”, means that the society is running down and falling apart. When you realize just how central the operation of this law is, you begin to get a sense of the central contradiction which Marx believes will ultimately lead to capitalism’s self-destruction. The self destruction of the capitalist system follows upon a contradiction between the constant expansion and development of what Marx calls the productive forces of society and what he calls the social relations of production in and through which those forces must operate.

In this particular context, “productive relations” refers to the wage relation and the class divisions essentially connected with it. That particular form of relation Marx calls a ‘social relation of production’. It refers to a social relation without which the technical capacities available for production could not be effectively used.

The productive forces, on the other hand, refers to all of the resources, skills, techniques, abilities, capacities, powers (including machines) and knowledge available to a society. 

At a particular point in time, the capitalist social relation – the wage relation – which at first (and for several hundred years) facilitated the development of the productive forces, becomes what Marx calls a “fetter” on their further development. In the beginnings of capitalism, this relationship between human productive powers and capitalism’s social relations was a facilitative one, relative to feudal social relations. But these relations increasingly come into conflict with the development of human productive capacities. Here, productive capacities and productive forces, and their development, refers to more than economic growth as it is defined under capitalism. To be sure, the hindering of the productive forces can include the meaning of impeding the accumulation of goods and services, measured as a certain number of units of Gross Domestic Product. But it also carries another meaning easily lost sight of, and that is the hindering of our capacity to match our ability to produce with what we rationally judge to be needed as a society. At some future point, after the point when the working class comprises the vast majority of human beings, we will no longer be able to tolerate this contradiction, together with all of the more local and limited crises and problems it generates. The private appropriation of the social product, combined with the constant necessity to accumulate, has the result of limiting, hampering and distorting the development of the productive forces, the capacity to put them to use to meet human needs.

Crises, unemployment, poverty, rampant inflation, imperialism, war, destruction of vital eco-systemic balances – all of these, combined with tremendous waste, are not natural occurrences, and will be increasingly seen to be the logical outcome of the operation of the fundamental laws of the capitalist economy. Increasingly, people will be less able to tolerate the top priority that in this system must be given to the expanded accumulation of capital. At that point, the working class, as the vast majority, and as the class that suffers the relative deprivation and alienation in capitalism most deeply and directly, and as the class which has no interest in subjecting others to a new form of exploitation – at that point, the working class could and would be able to abolish those forms of productive social relations which fetter human capacities. Marx did not imagine that such a point might have to await a time when we have the prospect of catastrophic climate change and when the world is constantly balanced on the razor edge of nuclear annihilation. However, what this misjudgement of what people could be made to tolerate has to do with the validity of the analysis underlying it, is not a simple question.

This conception of the relationship between the forces and relations of production as the key to historical development is central to Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Taken together, the forces and relations of production make up the all-too-famous notion of an “economic” base, upon which the so-called political, legal, cultural and ideological superstructure rests. What is known as vulgar Marxism largely consists in the theory that there is a simple relation of determination in which the economic base has its own independent logic, and that what happens in the superstructure simply “reflects” what goes on in the “economic base”.  In vulgar Marxism, anything which is not directly a part of the mode of production is explained as an effect or result or reflection of the mode of production. On the side of the base lies cause; on the side of the superstructure lies effect. Marx is supposed to have “reduced everything to economics”.

Vulgar Marxism takes the idea of a relation of causal determination between base and superstructure to be a universal law describing human society as such. According to Marx, however, it is, in the first place, a theory applicable to only one or two phases of historical development: to the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the transition from capitalism to socialism. “Base” and “Superstructure” are not meant to be permanent categories reflecting the nature of human society as such. In the second place the type of “determination” involved is not a simple causal-effect relationship. Marx’s theoretical framework, which is called ‘dialectical’ involves at its most fundamental level the effort to go beyond the sorts of dichotomies involved in the opposition of categories such as cause and effect. One of the ways in which Marx, and in particular his collaborator Friedrich Engels, tried to move people beyond the misunderstanding of their theory as a simple economic determinism was by introducing the notion of reciprocal determination. In reciprocal determination we have at least two things, both of which act as cause, and both of which react as effect. This is also the intent of Engels’ famous formulation that the mode of production does determine everything within the superstructure, but with varying degrees of directness – or ultimately only in the “last instance”. But even these sorts of formulations are simply first steps in the direction of an understanding that is considerably more complex.

The next step would be to stop using the language of cause, effect, determination and reflection and introduce other terms. Three very useful terms are suggested by John McMurtry in his book The Structure of Marx’s World-View, and they are “correspondence”, “constraint” and “mapping”. They are useful in describing the relation between what goes on in the “base” and what goes on in the “superstructure”, which are not to be thought of as entities in themselves, but perhaps better as very large sub-systems of the larger social system. 

Let’s take up mapping first, although all three terms are needed together. Direct mapping, for example, is what Marx describes when he argues that nineteenth century biology is a superstructural determination. That biological idea is “determined” in the sense that it has mapped onto itself, directly, features of the economic base (here, aspects of the relations of production): the notion that all of nature is a competitive struggle for survival in which the fit survive and the unfit perish. Current evolutionary biology has moved well beyond that to embrace a complex concept of co-evolution, in which entire eco-systems evolve. In this newer model, species survive only by fitting into, being essential parts of,  a complex web of relations of interdependency and  they develop in response to evolving larger systems.  Evolutionary theory, by way of ecology, has gotten a good deal more socialistic – or at least “socialized”. Now, according to Marx, that particular aspect of earlier Darwinian biology, fitness and success being established by a competitive struggle for survival, was a direct mapping or projection  of features of the economic base, of what actually does happen in a capitalist economy, onto the thought of the biologist trying to understand what takes place in nature. It is not that all Darwinian thinking is to be understood as nothing but the effect of capitalist production, but instead that a very important feature of Darwinism cannot be understood except as the direct mapping of a feature of the economic structure onto the thought of the biologist. The ideology of liberalism, including many of the central, core assumptions of its philosophies, is to a very large extent a mapping onto political philosophy of the reality of the economic life of capitalist society which is based on contract, and especially the wage contract between isolated individuals who consider themselves to be fundamentally free and therefore equal. “Being determines consciousness”: the actual reality of a market economy is mapped onto liberal political philosophy, which then tries to conceive of the human being and human relations as essentially suited for such a set of social relations.

The vulgar Marxist would say that the non-economic is simply an effect, something having no reality or autonomy of its own. Engels attempted to improve upon this with the idea of reciprocal interaction and the idea of relative degrees of autonomy of elements of the superstructure. The capitalist state is, for example, an effect of the capitalist mode of production, but an effect that is capable of acting back upon its cause, leading to some degree of reciprocal causation in which the state as an element of the superstructure gains relative autonomy. This is closer to Marx’s intention, but is still far from a really adequate dialectical formulation. The notion of mapping brings us another step closer: many features of the superstructure, from the state and law, to religion, education and mass culture, have directly mapped onto them features of the economic “sub-structure”.

Another useful notion is “correspondence”. To say that the economic base “determines” the superstructure might be better approached by thinking of the ways in which the superstructure corresponds to the economic base. Correspondence would mean that only a limited number or range of possible political, legal, or religious institutions, or only a limited range of forms of knowledge can, over the long run at least fit in with, support, legitimize and facilitate the mode of production of that society. The form of the “base”, the form of the productive life of a society, sets certain limits within which whatever else is done in society has to happen. Should something arise that challenges these limits set in the base – for example: the idea that health services should be available to all, equally, on the basis of need – such an idea or intiative will invariably run up against those limits and either be suppressed, marginalized or coopted – or else every effort will be made to contain it. So things that happen in the superstructure can challenge the fundamental structure of what is going on in the base; they can reveal the fundamental tension that is located in the mode of production itself. It is within the economic base --- within the relationship between the forces and relations of production --- where such tensions and contradictions arise. These become the major source of “superstructural” ideas or movements or forms of expression that more or less confirm or challenge the limits imposed by the present form of the base.  

A good example of constraint would lie no further away than in the way most people spend their day. Our activities are directly constrained by the requirements of the capitalist economy. Getting up at a set time, traveling to work, punching the clock, pulling the lever or pushing the paper and being there on time the next day to do it again --- this process in which you spend most of your waking hours is the direct result of the constraints imposed by the capitalist economy. Our possibilities are very much constrained by the fact that we live here and not in ancient Greece or the forests of the Amazon. Mapping, correspondence nad constraint are clearly all very closely related. A unifying formulation might be that features of the economic base get mapped onto features of the superstructure because the base sets certain constraints on the degree of non-correspondence that can take place.

According to Marx’s famous formula, people “…in social production enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will. These relations correspond to a definite stage in the development of the productive forces.” Note the use of the term correspond. Certain types of class relationship only become appropriate when the productive forces have developed to a certain point. The employer-employee wage relationship would not correspond to the productive forces developed by medieval Europeans or North American native peoples. The existence and continuous exertion of certain skills, capacities, techniques, tools and the knowledge which makes them practical, make it extremely unlikely, if not impossible that social relations will take form outside a limited range.

But the social relations of production themselves either facilitate the reproduction and development of the productive forces, or they do not. At a certain point the social relations of, and demanded by, the Medieval guild impeded the productive forces that could be (and were) developed in an employer-employee relation. Such relations made it hard or impossible to gather unskilled workers in large factories where they can be hired and fired at will in response to market fluctuations. So it is not that the productive forces simply “cause” certain productive relations to arise.

The general formula for the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism is that the relations of production which, at an earlier stage, facilitated the development of the productive forces eventually become a constraint or fetter on their further development. The feudal idea, for example, that there is a just price for products, would make it impossible for capitalist industry to challenge the power of established guilds by undercutting their prices. Thus as productive forces developed within feudal society, they eventually found themselves constrained by these relations. Either the society stagnates, or else we enter a period of bourgeois revolution. In the latter case, feudal social relations are more or less quickly, more or less violently, more or less consciously dismantled in order to make room for the further development of the productive forces, in this case the productive forces facilitated by capitalist relations of production (trades are deregulated, peasants freed from the soil, sometimes slaves are freed, freedoms are given to corporations to form, occupations are opened to talent rather than birth, new poor laws requiring people to work for “charity” are established, common lands are given to or sold off to those with capital to purchase them, the prices of basic staple foods are allowed to fluctuate on the open market, the vote is given to people who qualify simply by virtue of owning property, etc…).

Something similar, Marx thought, was taking place within capitalism. Capitalist relations of production would eventually hamper the development of the productive forces. The alienation and the hardship experienced by the working class would lead it more and more into an open and political struggle with the capitalist class (not simply a trade union struggle for better conditions within capitalism). In this struggle workers would form solidary relations, at first in an effort to gain more secure and humane conditions within capitalism. As it discovered through its own experience that its problems could not be solved at this level, it would more and more enter into an open and democratic political contest, preparing it at some future crisis point to assume the power of the state and to begin the process of transforming the relations of production along socialist lines. Socialist relations of production would in turn develop the productive forces to a point and in a direction where, freed from the capitalist compulsion to continue expanding, the associated individuals could begin to reduce their necessary labour time to a minimum. What constituted necessary labour would have to be decided by those associated on a democratic basis. Beyond that necessary minimum, beyond the “realm of necessity”, would open up a “realm of freedom” in which human capacities would be exercised purely for their own sake. Even in the realm of necessity, however, alienation would have been abolished , since it would no longer be their own alienated social forces (appearing as the laws of the capitalist market) that dictated their activity within it, or how long people would need to remain within it.

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