Thursday, 17 September 2009

Althusser and Social Complexity

Louis Althusser aimed to recast the Marxist method as a rigorously materialist and scientific approach capable of studying the "unforseen" developments within social formations that have post-dated Marx. Althusser went about this reconstruction through a close reading of the classical Marxist texts and a purging of any ideological/metaphysical moments. As Althusser puts it, "an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society … we can say that ideology, as a system of representations, is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important that the theoretical function (function as knowledge)" (Althusser 1996 For Marx London: Verson, p.231). That is to say the ‘knowledge function’ is the raison d’etre of science, and the ‘practico-social function’ are ideas that bind individuals to society - regardless of their character. Where Marx's work slipped into ideology it had to be jettisoned to improve Marx's scientific validity.

Althusser’s interrogation of Marx begins with his metaphor of standing Hegel on his feet as am illustration of his method. This implies there is little difference between Marx and Hegel – the only substantial difference is that Marx was a materialist, and Hegel was the culmination of German idealism. The dialectics of the two are practically the same. For Althusser this was erroneous and the persistence of this view has heavily distorted Marxism.

Comparing the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, particularly with reference to the categories of contradiction and totality, Althusser argued that for Hegel, no matter how complex the appearance of social life, the contradictions constituting the social totality were expressions of the unfolding of Reason throughout history toward an absolute end point. This Hegelian dialectic, replete with
a priori essentialism and teleology was present in ‘materialist’ form in some varieties of Marxism, particularly that of the Second International and the Hegelian Marxist tradition stemming from Lukacs. Althusser argues the 2nd International’s doctrine of the inevitability of socialism merely replaced Reason with the fatalist working out of historical tendencies in the economy. In Lukacs reification and alienation from one’s ‘species being’ was identified with proletarian struggle - which was a secularisation of the struggle to overcome alienation and uniting subject and object at the apex of history. Althusser termed these conceptualisations of history/society ‘simple’, or ‘expressive’ totalities.

Althusser’s alternative is to theorise the
complexity of the social whole. In classical Marxism, capitalism's central antagonism is between the forces and relations of production; labour versus capital. For Althusser, identifying class struggle with the central contradiction is based upon an understanding of the mode of production on which every social formation is based. In the case of capitalism, the pursuit of profit is premised on capital struggling to extract an ever greater economic surplus from the workforce. Therefore the 'effectivity' of the economy throughout the social formation is present to a degree that isn’t the case in other modes of production, such as feudalism. There also exist secondary contradictions, which cannot be immediately reduced to the prime antagonism but are nevertheless stamped by it. These secondary contradictions have their own levels of effectivity that feed back onto the original antagonism, leading Althusser to argue that it nor any other contradiction can never exist in its purity. They are always overdetermined by the impact of multiple effectivities operating throughout the social formation. Any political conjuncture (be it an election, a strike or a revolution) is the condensation of class conflict combined articulated with secondary contradictions. Unlike Foucault’s planar social field of undifferentiated power relations Althusser theorises a hierarchy of effectivity that determines the causal weight of the economic, political and ideological instances at any given moment in a social formation’s existence. In other words, Althusser’s famously cryptic comment that the economy only determines in the ‘last instance’ means the economy conditions the limits of variation of contradictions and developments possible in a social formation. It does not imply a strict determination of the superstructure by the economic base, as post-Marxist critics suggest.

What is also valuable in Althusser’s reconstruction of the Marxist dialectic is the importance he attaches to the uneven nature of all social formations. For example, the US is the most technologically advanced capitalist society in existence and yet this sits side by side with mass evangelical and fundamentalist Christian movements that exercise a great deal of influence over its polity. Aswell as recognising a particular degree of determination present at each level of the social formation, Althusser argues they possess internal modes of operation unique to it. With the rejection of expressive totalities Althusser introduces a notion of complex, or non-linear time. To negatively illustrate this, if linear time was a valid conceptual tool one would be able to perform an ‘essential section’ on any given part of society, revealing the congruence between its stage of development and the unfolding of the Idea/Reason behind social development. Because this is illusory the uneven character of a social formation and the irreducibility of its economic, political, and ideological instances means they can only operate according to their own relatively autonomous time scales:
The specificities of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations as a whole (Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar 1997, Reading Capital. London: Verso, p.100).
For Althusser the Marxist dialectic purged of ideological deformations is complex and rigorously materialist. The causal weight assigned to certain practices dispersed throughout the social formation is the result of ongoing processes within the formation rather than expressions of a pre-social essence, be it Hegel’s Geist or Nietzsche’s will to power. Therefore Althusser’s re-reading of Marx presents what Ollman describes as a philosophy of internal relations. Using Althusser's framework in conjunction with Ollman's defence of dialectics the category of abstraction undergoes change. Its chief features of abstraction of extension, of the level of generality, of vantage point combined with the traditional Marxist understanding of the four-fold character of social relations (identity/difference, interpenetration of opposites, quantity to quality, and contradiction) is sharpened when re-embedded in a theoretical background that has social formations as its object, that recognises the materiality of continuities and discontinuities, is aware of and explains the order of different levels, and is fully faithful to explanatory concerns.

This perspective provides a methodological point of departure that has clear advantages over Foucault’s genealogy. While not wishing to repeat Resch’s criticisms, it cannot be emphasised enough that Foucault’s occupation of the low ground, his absolute refusal to theorise a link between the micro and the macro, and his labelling of any such attempt as irredeemably metaphysical is extremely problematic. It has been demonstrated that explanation need not rest on essentialist foundations. But despite the avowed genealogical aims of
Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality his investigation of the formation of penal and sexual subjects at the micro level illustrates the irreducibility of the techniques concerned, elaborates the unique pace of development particular to each set of practices, and importantly, acknowledges the weight of wider social processes and how the micro-level in turn acts on and transforms these macro movements. For example, we have seen how the bourgeois class body informed early discourses of sexuality, which then acted on the macro management problem of population. Likewise the devices used to construct and manage convict-subjects in penal institutions have facilitated the widespread development of similar technologies in schools, hospitals, the workplace, etc.

If one is to ‘annex’ Foucault’s insights and embed them into the explanatory frame sketched out above, then a symptomatic reading similar to the one performed by Althusser on Marx is necessary. This reading must preserve that which illuminates the micro-foundations of contemporary social formations, explore Foucault’s omissions and silences with an eye to filling in the gaps, and decisively break with the heritage bequeathed by Nietzsche that could hinder the explanatory enterprise. The critique performed by Resch on Foucault sketches out some of the contours of such a reading, whereas Althusser had pre-empted many of Poster’s criticisms in his investigation of Marx. On this basis an alliance between Marx and Foucault – with Althusser as permanent mediator – can be forged, breaking down the wall that has so far divided the two camps and beginning a dialogue that can enrich all social theory.

The whole contents of Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.


Derek Wall said...


Interesting stuff....Althusser is less readable than your prose, this looks a nice clear account of some of his thoughts.

do you know Ted Benton's 'The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism' its a long while see I looked at, but it seemed useful.

Good and relevent.

Easy to dismiss Althusser especially for those of us in a political tradition which includes E.P.Thompson who after William Morris and M and E was a key ecosocialist.

Phil BC said...

Yeah, reading Althusser is no barrel of laughs (that said, I did spot a very subtle joke in Reading Capital), but perseverence does pay off IMHO.

For anyone thinking about reading Althusser there are a number of good entrees. Ted Benton's book is a good if very critical overview. The One Dimensional Marxism collection (with Simon Clarke) is extremely critical. The best supporting intros are Callinicos's very old Althusser's Marxism and the weighty Resch tome Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. The latter is especially excellent.

My tips for reading Althusser himself is to do so very, very slowly. His writing is very dense and it's easy to miss something, which probably explains why he's more maligned than understood. For Marx is definitely the place to begin because, if anything, Reading Capital is even more dense.

Andrew Coates said...

Simon Clarke's book is pretty one-dimensional itself. A good place to start is Gregory Elliot's biography of Althusser. Callinicos' book is very dated.

Actually Althusser's wriings in Fo Marx are difficult but not that difficult for someone brought up in an orthodox Marxist tradition. They were designed for a PCF audience after all. As were the essays around Ideology and State Apparatus. Perry Anderson's Arguments book is important re.Thompson.

The real problem is his theory of overdetermination, and of causal determination in general. Look at its Spinozaian references...

Phil BC said...

I remember reading Althusser thinking how anyone *not* interested in Marxism would get their head round it. He's tough enough for committed Marxists!

Dave O said...

I confess that Althusser is the one major Marxist thinker whose work made me throw in the towel after less than 100 pages. Sorry, I just couldn't finish it. I must be dumb or something ...

Phil BC said...

Not at all Dave. But you do need to be very persitent and patient. When I read For Marx and Reading Capital I read it very carefully and very, very slowly. Would take me an hour to go through three pages at times.

Anonymous said...

I think Althusser had lots of interesting ideas and I've made use of a lot of them at various times. Pierre Macherey's Althusserian 'A theory of literary production' is also a bomb of a book.

But the overarching problem with Althusser is the static nature of these explorations. According to my reading of Marx and Engels on method, they weren't interested in generalised theories of base/superstructure and so on but rather in how such concepts work out in history. So, when I read Althusser and other theorists ruminating interminably on base/superstructure I always want to shout "but when? What period are you talking about?". Concepts must be fluid and rooted in our past, present and future, to badly paraphrase Trotsky.

But I do love Althusser and his autobiography is bloody hilarious.

The Poet Duster

Anonymous said...

Yes, all hail the great Marxist who at a critical moment in French working class history - 1968 - scuttled away to Torquay!

Phil BC said...

His autobiography is great, even if only for the quality of his delusions. Meeting de Gaulle in the street and becoming fast friends? Going for a stroll on a nuclear sub?

I think Resch's book is very good for countering the atemporal criticisms levelled at Althusser, and (if memory serves) criticises attempts to read pre-capitalist societies through concepts developed to analyse capitalism.

In a sense I see Hegel and Althusser as fairly similar. What they both tried to do was capture, in abstract, the movement of social processes. Aside from the vast difference in language the primary difference is that Hegel thought his philosophy of history and history were identical whereas Althusser is very clear in stating that objects and our thoughts about them are two very different things. However Althusser did take this in a idealist direction, assuming that the epistemological status of a theory was guaranteed by Theory (i.e. philosophy) rather than practice.

If one wanted to be symptomatic about it you could say in light of his theories his absence during May '68 wasn't entirely surprising.

David McInerney said...

I am currently re-reading Alex Callinicos's little book 'Althusser's Marxism' after first reading it 15 years ago.

I'm not sure why the SWP/IST have largely discarded this book in favour of the arguments of Clarke's One-Dimensional Marxism (this was clear in many of the criticisms made of Althusser by the late Chris Harman). Callinicos's book is on the whole excellent, and although dated, at least reveals an excellent grasp of Althusser's arguments and locates its political limitations precisely. It covers almost all of the material published by Althusser up to 1974, with the exception of Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, which he would have appeared to have read after the manuscript was finished but focused on Elements of Self-Criticism instead as it related more to his points on Althusser's theory and politics (it seems likely that the subtle differences between Lenin and Philosophy and PSPS were not picked up in what must have been a quick read for the postscript - in any case they are not especially consequential for Callinicos's argument). The points that he makes regarding ideology and sociology in the chapter on politics are very pertinent, as are his comments regarding the relationship of Althusser's work to Trotskyism and Maoism. I would strongly recommend the book as a book on Althusser's politics that locates its problems in a concrete and theoretical way - as well as being quite suggestive regarding some of the political reasons why the second definition of philosophy wasn't developed to its full potential in the published writings - while recognizing the contribution that Althusser's critique of theoretical humanism and Hegelianism made for Marxist theory, ironically especially for political theory. The subsequent publication of SOME of the writings in Althusser's archives and their lacunae might be profitably explored in terms of the theoretical effects of Althusser's affiliations and can also provide some ways out of those effects theoretically. One of the most interesting aspects of Althusser's late work is the fact that it sometimes reads like an anti-humanist version of Thompson's critique of Marx's "Grundrisse face" ...