Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Marx may be wrong on historical materialism, at least partially, and Hegel and idealists somewhat right

Marx straight out disassociates himself from what he terms French Materialism in his definition of what historical materialism is, yet just by using the term, and by associating labor power with a base quantity that fuels society, the idea is smuggled back into the philosophy. The idea that economics is the foundation of all of society, and of all of history, assumes that economics is not only very material in the way that the Enlightenment envisioned matter, but that it's also teleologically linked to the rest of the features of society in a causative way. Looking at what Marx did with economics and with the ideas that the had about how economics influences society, I think that a different interpretation could be argued for how economics really functions in Marxism.

Marx looked at economics because it seemed to him to be the most concrete, fundamental, feature in society, the one without which society would literally not be able to survive. A group of people grow wheat, a group of people make tools, the tool makers buy wheat from the wheat growers, and the wheat growers buy tools from the tool makers as well as using their own wheat. Through this both sets of people have their needs met. If in this little mini economy the tool makers weren't around any more, or were not making tools, eventually agriculture would grind to a halt as the tools they're using break down, and if the wheat growers weren't there the tool makers would not be able to subsist through making tools and not farming their selves. For this social formation to continue there has to be continual economic action---work, complementary exchange, consumption, and more work. You take that away and this tiny scenario, or any other much larger scenario, ceases to function in any sort of normal way. Perhaps alternatives are arrived at, people learn to cope, but if so the alternatives and the coping mechanisms enter back into the economy itself, even if they're only used at the personal level. It's this concreteness that I believe lead Marx to identify the economy and it's structural effects on society as being the primary feature and mover of society.

But be that as it may, although much economic activity has a big material component, the immaterial cannot be rationalized out of it completely. Somebody produces wheat, someone produces tools, yet while wheat is a plant that has organic nutritional value, tools are just hunks of wood or metal that only have meaning when used by human beings in specific ways. How effective those tools are at their purpose depends on their design, how it fits in with human hands and with human minds. Among other things, it's mental skill and work directing physical manipulation that also contributes to the economy. While it may be possible to value productivity, say the productivity of tools or of a person using tools, that quantity isn't a 'thing' in the sense of something with mass and weight, and not material per se.

Work and consumption, used in the sense of a tool being 'consumed' in work as well as in the sense of something being directly consumed, have a large symbolic element within them that only makes sense within the context of human society. Machines may use physical laws, and be made out of stuff, but without human beings there they wouldn't have any meaning on their own. Within the symbolic framework of human society the economy exists.

Now, the economy features production, exchange, and consumption, that activity satisfies human needs overall, and it hopefully works as a system where production mostly meets the needs of consumption and consumption mostly meets the needs of production. But even though this structure is necessary for society to exist, that doesn't mean that the economy is a teleological point from which the rest of society follows. It may structure it, influence it, have a heck of a lot to do with how the world around us works, but the idea of causation went out with the 19th century. There can be other institutions that exert competing influence. What the economy structures, it structures, and then power relations are built on top of that structuring, influencing and co-opting other power relations, yet none of that implies causation.

The idea of historical materialism implies that just by knowing the economic foundation of society, you can derive the rest through class interests and ideas about institutions flowing from them, but what I think is the case is that the economy exerts its influence, deeply structuring things, but history itself is made out of the sum total of institutions and ideas, that may or may not be influenced by any of the structuring factors, and that do not exist in a causative relationship with each other. And ultimately, economy itself only makes sense within the symbolic universe of human beings and despite it's material products is not a thing in itself, something that subsists without the need of reference to anything else.

This intersects with Hegel and the idealists in that what Marx sought out to do was to take the perceived wooliness of Hegel, the abstractness of the dialectic that appeared to leave everything in life symbolic and up in the air, and root it to a concrete feature of society that could not be undercut by something more primal. But if the economy, while important, is not the only game in town, then we're left with a situation where there is no one primal institution at the bottom of everything, and where instead we have to deal with competing forces that structure society in different ways, ways that have real impacts but that are not concrete enough to be labeled as 'the' material basis of society. There is no 'material' basis of society then. This brings us back to the more abstract, wooly, dialectic of Hegel, and to the strange ideas about the interaction between Nature and Society that the idealists had, because without one material basis there's only different degrees of symbolic basis that have components that are material, and the work of society becomes a synthesis between the symbolic and the material, working on and influencing each other. This synthesis is very much in tune with worldviews where quantitative change eventually produces qualitative change, in that quality itself can be not only a feature with material aspects, like water boiling, but also a symbolic faculty that is altered because of the degree to which the change in quantity has changed the meaning within the symbolic framework held by human beings and by human society in general.

If life is a semi-material interaction of real and symbolic components simultaneously within the framework of physical existence and human society, then symbolic change can ultimately have the same type of power and influence as material change, although material determinants may have impact on people in ways that seem very important. Economics motivate people, but so does religion, for instance, and derivations of religion from economics, no matter what real structuring influence there is there, don't negate the symbolic power of religion and the potential real action religious impulses can marshall once it is provoked in a symbolic way. The Nation or the Flag, might be symbolic abstractions, but the idea of the Nation or of the Flag has symbolic reality that goes on alongside the material reality that much of society functions by.

Economy is important, but things labeled as being in the 'superstructure' can in fact exert force on their own independently of the economy, and can influence the economy in turn.

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