Tag Archives: Dialectics

Spectrality

Reading through Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” there is a very interesting discussion of Jacques Derrida’s “Spectres of Marx“. I should preface this by being very clear that I haven’t read Derrida’s book, and that I have not particularly enjoyed the Derrida that I have read. That said, it prompts a fascinating section in Jameson (chapter 4 “Marx’s Purloined Letter”) on the dialectical nature of change. He makes the concept of “spectrality” central to the description of dialectics.

The reference in the title is of course to the famous opening words of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe” (Marx 2010, p.19). There is plenty of depth in Jameson’s chapter but the key point for me is the connection between past, present, and future. In any analysis of a current situation it is possible to see the spectres of both the past and the future. Change is inherent to any given ‘present’. It does not exist in isolation, but is an expanded view that takes both in what went before and what is to come as fully part of what is.

This is consistent with Bertell Ollman’s description of Marx as studying history “backwards”. Precondition and result here become part of the same process of becoming extended to encompass their interaction over time (Ollman 2003, p.117). From the standpoint of the present, we can look back into the past to see the necessary preconditions, those things that had to be in place for the movement of history to arrive just here.

“it is a matter of asking where the situation under hand comes from and what had to happen to it for it to acquire just these qualities”

(Ollman 2003, p.118)

This is not to imply determinism, other choices were possible in the past that would have lead to a different present. But by viewing this as a single process from the standpoint of what did in fact happen we can better understand both past and present, and perhaps also the future.

This same concept can been in elsewhere in Marx’s work. For example in Marx’s description of the circuit of capital, what David Harvey highlights as “value in motion”. Wealth becomes capital in the movement from money, to means of production, to a stock of commodities on the market, and back into money. Each point is a different facet of the same whole as it moves through a lifecycle.

What Jameson describes (through Derrida) as ‘spectrality’ is therefore central to the understanding and use of dialectics. As a thought process this is useful for more than just reading Marx. For example I’m reminded very strongly of a piece by Jackson Pollock called “Summertime Number 9A” from 1948. An initially random-seeming pattern of drips begins to look like a sequence of frames showing a dancer in motion. At the same time you are aware that you are seeing the frozen movement of the artist himself as he created the piece. In both senses then this demonstrates in art the ‘spectrality’ described by Jameson.

This is then a central concept for dialectics. I guess I’d better get ready to plough through that book by Derrida.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Harvey, David Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2017)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Marx, Karl The Communist Manifesto (Vintage, London, 2010)

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Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)

Totality and pluralism

This is a short post to capture a superb passage from “Valences of the Dialectic”. I’m not going to add much commentary to it, but will rather quote it at some length.

Jameson is discussing Lukacs’ concept of “totality”, and in particular the post-modern turn which dismisses it as associated with Stalinism and in general the perceived destructiveness of totalising visions of the future when used as drivers for political action.

Jameson describes how modern (“late”) capitalism uses the concept of “pluralism” to express the complexity of social relations and to envelop what had formerly been disruptive non-conformist movements within the social apparatus.

This is fascinating framework within which to understand how ‘identity politics’ has become a mechanism for the co-option of dispute and its incorporation into ‘permitted’ discourse as part of a wider Marxist thought process. This facilitates the neutering of dissent, and thereby events such as the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. More traditional channels for discontent have in other words been not blocked but diverted, opening the window for the unexpected. To mix metaphors, what the protectors of the status quo haven’t got to grips with is that in the context of class struggle closing one avenue of dissent is like squeezing a balloon – all that happens is that the challenge pops out somewhere else.

This provides philosophical depth (and a link to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism) to the theory of “spirits” of capitalism as a means to incorporate and control challenge and dissent expressed in Boltanski and Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism“.

So that’s the preamble, here’s the segment from Jameson in full:

“Pluralism has therefore now become something like an existential category, a descriptive feature that characterises our present everyday life, rather than an ethical imperative to be realise within it. What is ideological about current celebrations of pluralism is that the slogan envelops and illicitly identifies two distinct dimensions of social complexity. There is the vertical dimension of late-capitalist or corporate institutions, and then the horizontal one of increasingly multiple social groups. Celebrations of pluralism pass the first off under the guise of the second, in whose joyous and Utopian street “heterogeneity” it decks itself out. But the complexity of institutions is also a form of standardisation (the very paradox of the system of reification as Lukacs first described it in an early stage). Meanwhile, the celebration of the diversity of the “new social movements” released by the 1960s obscures their increasing collectivisation and institutionalisation as well. The solitary Romantic rebels and nonconformists of earlier periods have all been transformed into groups and movements, each with its own specific micropolitics. The transformation marks a significant (if provisional) gain in the political power of formerly marginal or repressed individuals, who, however, thereby forfeit the power and the pathos of an older rhetoric of individual resistance and revolt.”

“Yet is is precisely by way of this new institutionalisation, marked, for example, by a new-ethnic movement in culture, in which older groups now produce their “heritage” in the form of the image, that the ideologeme of “pluralism” is able to do its work. It shifts gears imperceptibly from these new group structures to the very different structures of the corporate, which can now appropriate the celebration of Difference and Heterogeneity and harness it to the celebration of consumer goods, free enterprise, and the eternal wonder and excitement of the market itself.”

(Jameson 2009, p212-213)

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

The ‘moments’ of Marx

David Harvey’s most recent book is a superb short introduction to the analysis laid out by Marx in Capital, almost like a summary of his ‘Companion’ to the three volumes of Capital (Harvey 2010, Harvey 2013).

One of the concepts that I really like about Harvey’s analysis is the idea of there being seven different aspects or ‘moments’ to Marx’s analysis in Capital. I think this fits well with the outline of Marx’s use of dialectics given by Ollman. In particular, Harvey writes that to see any one aspect as dominant or determining misses the point:

The grand contest as to whether the productive forces or social relations should be viewed as the prime mover of capitalist development misses the point. It fails to situate Marx’s study of technology in the context of the totality of relations that constitute a capitalist social formation. It also assumes, for no good reason, that there must be a prime mover.

(Harvey 2017, p. 112).

The analysis of capital should be seen as a totality in all it’s complexity. To help with this Harvey takes a footnote from volume 1 (Marx 1990, p. 493 note 4) to identify seven ‘moments’, each representing a different angle from which to view the structure of capital.

These seven moments are:

  • Relation to nature;
  • Technology;
  • Modes of production;
  • Social relations;
  • Reproduction of daily life;
  • Mental conceptions of the world;
  • Institutional arrangements (added by Harvey).

(Harvey 2010, p. 195)

The most important thing here is to see these elements not as a list, but as the separate facets of a single structure. Something like the faces of a seven sided dice, or seven different windows onto the interior of the same building. The structure itself is a single building, a united whole, which we can view from each of these angles and gain a slightly different perspective through each. Each one interacts with all the others, and any comprehensive analysis must account for all of them.

To argue that any one of these determines the nature of society therefore misses the point. Each one expresses an element of the whole. As Harvey notes:

No one moment prevails over the others, even as there exists within each moment the possibility for autonomous development… All these elements coevolve and are subject to perpetual renewal and transformation as dynamic moments within the totality.

(Harvey 2010, p. 196).

This it seems to me is the essence of Marx’s dialectical analysis. A complex and multi-faceted whole, that can be approached from a number of different angles each of which provides insight and helps us to approach the whole but none of which actually constitute or determine that whole. It provides a framework or reference for analysis, and therefore a key element in Marx’s relevance for today.

Harvey, David Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, London, 2017).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 1 (Verso, London, 2010).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2 (Verso, London, 2013).

Marx, Karl Capital, A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1 (Penguin, London, 1990).

Dance of the Dialectic notes #3

A third batch of rough notes while reading Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” following on from the first and second installments.

Step 4

Studying History Backwards

For Marx, the best approach to studying how the past developed into the present is to work backwards from effect to cause – instead of more usual assessments of the influence of the “economic factor” in tracing causality forwards. This is rooted again the philosophy of internal relations. His approach is therefore rather “precondition and result”, the two things viewed dynamically. Investigating how something comes into being is done from results backwards through the necessary preconditions – ie. from the vantage point of what things turned into.

Ollman emphasises that this is not teleological – nothing is inevitable. Rather it is a question of what had to happen to make just this present possible. This is not to deny human agency – people could have chosen differently. Vantage point is the key. The alternative in writing history is to make choices about what to focus on based on criteria outside the historical process itself.

Marx’s interest in eg. feudalism is therefore not in explaining feudalism but looking for the things which were important in the rise of capitalism.

The section on the future is far less convincing. Marx projects current trends into the future to identify what communism might look like using the same tools, but this short segment is weak.

Dialectic as Inquiry and Exposition

As inquiry, the methods outlined (internal relations, abstraction, and the various dialectical tools) provide the means by which Marx investigates his subject. “The dialectic as inquiry is the search for internal relations within and between abstracted units”.

As exposition, the dialectic “is Marx’s means of expounding these relations to his readers”. The difficulty of making language explain the analysis explains why Marx continually reworked Capital for example. Main features include dealing with each subject from many vantage points, along with following each subject through the particular forms it assumes at different times and in different contexts.

Marx assumes or masks the larger part of what he identifies in a Relation in order to be able to express and explain the point he is trying to bring out. In other words we only see part of the meaning he sees or is trying to convey. He uses many different phrases to signal this, including ‘reflection’, ‘manifestation’, ‘in one of its aspects’.

The ‘identity’ of things which are seemingly different (“division of labour and private property are identical expressions”) causes confusion among critics. Critics also tend to look for causal relationships “setting apart horse and cart where Marx meant each conception to convey both”.

Marxism and Political Science

Marxism has not to date formed a significant part in political science. But he does have a theory of the state, albeit not one that is written clearly in a single place. Underneath these theories is Marx’s concern to locate relations within a system and depicting the effects of that system on the relational parts.

Ollman then restates Marx’s method, stating that it exists on 5 levels:

  1. Ontology: study of ‘being’. Marx asserts that reality exists outside us, but as a totality of internally related parts.
  2. Epistemology: how what is known is arranged in thought.
  3. Inquiry: what Marx is looking for and how he understands what he finds.
  4. Intellectual reconstruction.
  5. Exposition: how to explain capitalism as a system of structural interdependence relationally contained in each of it’s parts.

Ontology: the conception of ‘totality’ is the structured independence of its parts – interacting events, processes, and conditions – as viewed from any major part. This is contrasted to a structuralist conception which asserts the predominance of the parts over the whole.

Epistemology: four interlocking processes – perception; abstraction (how Marx separates what is perceived into distinct units); conceptualisation (the translation of what is abstracted into concepts with which to think and communicate); orientation (the effects abstractions have on his beliefs, judgements, and action). This last point is important. What any group believes and does is inextricably linked to the ways in which it grasps and defends both.

Inquiry: tracing out relations between units, frequently changing vantage point to see it from all angles.

Intellectual reconstruction: Marx’s ontology is the world as an internally related whole; he breaks this down into relational units with structured independence which through inquiry he traces the links between. Ollman suggests that Marx’s personal understanding is not the same as the analysis in his published work. The key difference in his work is not between the young or old Marx, but between the published and unpublished. The key texts to trace his personal understanding are the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundisse.

His reconstruction is a success because a) having connected the main parts he is able to catch a glimpse of the overall system at work in each of them; b) the reconstruction is both ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’, the key contradiction being between social production and private appropriation.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

Exposition: comprehension and explanation are distinct functions and involve different techniques. Marx attempts to explain capitalism from the perspective of each major social Relation. It seems that he was broadly dissatisfied though as he continually revised Capital for each new edition. As a book it is best approached as offering “successive approximations” looking at various different angles in turn.

“force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody.”

Why Dialectics, Why Now?

A recapitulation of the analysis that history should be studied “backwards”, using abstraction to bring out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur, and study in a way which never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part.

Four stages to this study:

  1. Look for relations between the main capitalist features of society;
  2. Find the necessary preconditions of just those relations;
  3. Project these into the future;
  4. Look backwards from the projected future to identify what in the present would form the preconditions for that future state.

We can differentiate between near and far futures, marking the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

 

The End of Liberalism

Slavoj Zizek has not had a good 2016 US election, arguing that Trump is just another centrist liberal and that given a vote he would vote for Trump.

There have been a number of explanations given in the regular media for Trump’s unexpected victory, but common among them is that racism is at the core of his success. Should we ascribe Trump’s win to intolerance? And what are the implications if we do? Is it the “whitelash” identified by some commentators?

Then I came across this passage in “Living in the End Times” from 2010, in which Zizek gives a typically eclectic take on “the coming apocalypse”, and I thought about the light it throws on the liberal media reaction:

“of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalisation is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various social projects…”

There can be no doubt that Trump ran an openly racist election campaign. It is also clear that race is an important influencing factor in US politics and society. Exit poll data suggests that 58% of white voters voted for Trump which at face value seems to suggest that Trump’s outward racism had a significant impact, that intolerance was at the heart of his success. But 57% of white voters chose Romney in 2012 so perhaps race isn’t the unique factor behind Trump’s success.

Similarly, 53% of voters with an income below $30,000 voted for Clinton which would seem to support the standard narrative. Poorer voters supported the Democratic candidate and therefore Trump’s victory was driven by angry white people, and economics had nothing to do with it.

And yet.

That 53% of voters in the under $30,000 income bracket voting for Clinton was 16 points down on Obama’s performance against Romney. 90% of voters who thought the country “generally on the right” track voted Hillary, but just 25% of those who thought it seriously off track. 63% of those who expected their children to have a worse life than today voted for Trump. Hillary was the continuity candidate, maintaining the existing economic settlement. The 53% from the lowest income bracket voting for Hillary masks the catastrophic shift to Trump. The economics is important.

In other words analysing Trump’s victory in terms of race (or gender, or sexuality) is an example of the left’s subordination to “identity politics”. By seeing politics through the lens of individual identities the left has lost sight of the economic system which colours voters’ willingness to support a continuation of the current state of affairs.

Although inflected by race and misogyny Trump’s pitch was aimed fundamentally at “the system”, a system which isn’t working for a large chunk of the population. His overt racism is part of the narrative he adopted to attracted voters disaffected voters.

The challenge for the left is therefore not to demand tolerance from a Trump administration but to lead social and economic change in a progressive direction. To change the system.

This leads to a final quote from Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic“.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

The left in both the US and Western Europe has approached social and economic change as separated things which can be tackled individually. In the face of Trump we need to avoid both condemnation and despair and instead craft a genuinely progressive movement for change.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #2

A second batch of notes from reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following on from the post covering the first 2 steps.

Step 3 – Putting Dialectics to Work: the Process of Abstraction in Marx’s Method

“How, in other words, can we think about change and interaction so as not to miss or distort the real changes and interactions that we know in a general way at least, are there (with all the implications this has for how to study them and to communicate what we find to others)? This is the key problem addressed by dialectics, this is what all dialectics is about, and it is in helping to resolve this problem that Marx turns to the process of abstraction.”

All philosophers use abstraction. Marx’s use of abstraction differs by incorporating both change and interaction in to the element abstracted. Rather than comparing two static snapshots, Marx includes both past and future. This approach is dramatically different from the ‘usual’ when where ‘things’ exist and undergo change as two logically distinct elements of thought.

This leads Ollman to a restatement of the earlier section on the Philosophy of Internal Relations – presumably because the book is in fact a collection of articles published elsewhere and fashioned into a book after the fact.

There are then three main aspects to abstraction “which are also it’s functions vis-a-vis the part abstracted, on the one hand, and the system to which the part belongs and that it in turn helps to shape, on the other hand”:

  • Extension;
  • Level of generality;
  • Vantage point.

Extension

Abstraction of extensions operates like different levels of magnification in a microscope. Marx criticises political economists for drawing abstractions that are too narrow in scope – for example commodity exchange is substituted for the whole process by which a product becomes a commodity and subsequently available for exchange.

As an example, an abstraction of extension underpins Marx’s claim that capital and labour are “expressions of the same relation, only seen from opposite poles”.

Abstraction of extension also impacts the classifications that Marx makes. It means that he does not define clean boundaries between different structures. Their extent depends on the abstraction in play. One can work solely at the level of appearances – what Marx calls ‘fetishism’. Class is particularly impacted with the statements “all history is the history of class struggle” and “class is the product of the bourgeoisie” which are seemingly contradictory dictated by the abstraction Marx is operating at.

Abstraction of extension also support capturing the movement which Marx wants to investigate. Ollman identifies a number of sub-movements:

  • Quantity/quality – historical change;
  • Metamorphosis – organic change;
  • Contradiction – a union of two or more processes which are simultaneously supporting and undermining each other.
    • mutual support;
    • mutual undermining;
    • immanent unfolding of processes, contradiction becomes bigger, sharper, more explosive;
    • change in overall form as a result of interactions with other processes in the larger system;
    • resolution (may not be permanent).

“Commodity, for example, is said to embody the contradiction between use and exchange value as well as the contradiction between private and social labour. To contain both contradictions, commodity must be given a large enough extension to include the interaction between the two aspects of value as well as teh interaction between the two aspects of labour, and both of them as they develop over time”.

Level of Generality

Ollman gives five levels which he states Marx uses, plus two extra to complete a set of seven:

  1. The unique, specific to each individual;
  2. What is general to people and their activities within modern capitalism;
  3. Capitalism as such;
  4. Class society, the period of human history where society is divided by class;
  5. Human history;
  6. The animal world;
  7. Nature itself.

All the associated qualities are equally real, but different elements will come into focus depending on the level we are operating on. Marx usually operates on level 3, but occasionally on levels 2 or 4. Bourgeois political economists normally operate on either level 1 or 5 – that is it either treats individuals as entirely unique or as all the same, part of human nature.

A good example of this in action is the Labour Theory of Value. Marx is seeking to explain only why products have a price at all, not the specific price of an individual product. He is operating at level 3. To explain the price of an product and the fluctuations of the market means “abstracting in” both levels 2 and 1. As such, the “transformation problem” of values into prices disappears once we acknowledge what level of abstraction Marx is operating at.

Marx’s approach to economic determinism in history is similarly often misunderstood through failing to see how it might operate at the different levels of generality. Moving down through the levels creates constraints to what is possible at a lower level.

Vantage Point

The same relation viewed from different angles creates apparent contradictions in Marx’s work. For example the state is treated as both an instrument of the ruling class and a set of objective structures that respond to the demands of the economy.

“A vantage point sets up a perspective that colours everything that falls into it, establishing order, hierarchy, and priorities, distributing values, meanings, and degrees of relevance, and asserting a distinctive coherence between the parts.” Viewing something from a particular vantage point is inherent to the concept of a Relation.

Capital and Labour can be seen as the same Relation viewed from opposite poles. Marx favours vantage points connected with production, for example viewing profit, rent, and interest from the vantage point of surplus value – the identity they have in common as portions of value produced by workers that is not returned to them. Vantage point constrains the visible identity of any individual – capitalists are seen as non-gendered representatives of capital for example. The metamorphosis of value can only be seen when the vantage point is ‘value’.

The Role of Abstractions in the Debates over Marxism

Differences in abstraction are at the root of many of the debates in Marxism. Things such as the role of economic determinism or human agency; or whether crises are caused by the falling rate of profit or the realization of value.

Each side is seeking a permanent boundary in Marx’s thought, when in fact Marx can pursue analysis across all the levels of generality and from various vantage points with differing extensions.