Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.
My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.
In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:
“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”
(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)
My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.
Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are
“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”
(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)
This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:
“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”
(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)
This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.
Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.
To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.
After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.
Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)
Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (W W Norton & Company, London, 2008)