Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Teaching Marx, Part 2

As I mentioned before, I spent a few days teaching Marx to my Great Philosophers class. The first day was dedicated to a bit of intended disorientation for them, while on the second, we looked at the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (here). I will spare you my notes, but I discussed how this text has an ambivalent place in many interpretations of Marx; while it provides a concise statement on historical materialism, it seems to veer toward a deterministic account of social change. The voluntarist side of Marxism, to which I incline, is often forced to reject Marx's strict distinction between base and superstructure, or to reject passages such as
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.
Now, I feel fairly ambivalent about these kinds of passages, because while they seem to endorse an economic determinism, they also seem to support Marx's argument that changes that do not affect the base will not lead to liberation. However, by removing the subjective aspect of social struggle, they seem to describe better the transitions from one capitalist superpower to another: once one economic center's productive forces are fully developed and become an impediment to further development, another economic center takes its place. 

I have, nevertheless, started rethinking my take on the distinction between the base and the superstructure. This division is often criticized for making the superstructure (political, intellectual and social life) dependent on the economic base.

Unlike many of the other approaches that historicize social forms, historical materialism requires that these forms must be understood as embedded in capitalist and imperialist forms of social relationships. Furthermore, we ought to look at how the financialization of capitalism produces a failure of meaning in the transition from economic forms to forms of political struggle. By this I mean that radical political struggle, and radical philosophy, has not yet 'mapped' these new social relations and organized clear political demands to change these relationships, which is why so much of the critique of finance capitalism has focused on bankers or has demanded administrative solutions to financial crises. This is not enough.  As Christian Marazzi points out, in The Violence of Financial Capitalism, reform must start at the base. This means questioning assumptions about consumption, production, and investment in new ways. Marazzi argues that reform at the base ought to return the right of social ownership to the forefront of criticism. His specific example is the right to housing as a social right rather than a private right, but we could also add better financial access to education and intellectual commons, amongst other things.


Jason R. B. Smith said...

I think it is important to question the relationship between base and superstructure as the superstructural concerns of late capitalism have turned out to be far more capable than I think Marx anticipated. At the same time though the conceptual distinction and relationship are fairly sound. The fact of the matter is that material gain still matters and cultural concerns get manipulated by those with the material ability to guard their materials through the production of superstructural modes of understanding.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

Nevertheless there is a lot of post-Marxist criticism that thinks otherwise. That's why I am trying to cast their distinction as a kind of 'failure of meaning' or non-coincidence of significance; that the more advance means of financialization have not been translated into political demands.