Tuesday 1 September 2009

Dialectics and Abstraction

At this point it appears Marxism and Foucault could not be further away from each other. Though both share a framework that is historical and materialist (broadly speaking), the radically decentred conception of power favoured by Foucault operates at the level of individual bodies and flows from the epistemological ‘low ground’ on which his methodology is based. This does not sit with Marxist objectives of uncovering and explaining macro-level historical trends and the political goal of replacing capitalism with socialism. A reconciliation between Foucault and Marx seems insurmountable.

Nevertheless there is an aspect of Marx's method that can facilitate an encounter between the two. Bertell Ollman's 1993 book,
Dialectical Investigations places abstraction at the centre of Marx’s dialectical method. Dialectical thought argues Ollman "restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the commonsense notion of a ‘thing’ as something that has a history and has external connections with other things, with notions of ‘process’, which contains its history and possible futures, and ‘relation’, which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations" (ibid, p.11). According to Ollman a ‘thing’ is always irreducibly social, enmeshed and constituted through relations that act on it, and in turn are acted on by it. For Ollman Marx abstracts the part from the whole, recognising that this is just an analytical separation - it is in actuality organically embedded in the social substance. It is important that abstraction remains sensitive to this fact and not mistake the things of logic for the logic of things. Marx therefore does not take an object and build up its external connections with other objects, an approach characteristic of methodological individualism or Enlightenment rationalism. "Externalities" are always considered internal to an object and constitutive of it.

Once this standpoint has been adopted dialectical research is concerned with identifying four faces of social relations. First, the particular character of ‘identity/difference’ needs to be established – an operation that goes beyond a banal comparative accounting of similarities and differences by looking beyond appearance. In Marx’s
Capital the different appearances classical political economy bestows upon rent, interest and profit is suppressed to bring out their identity as forms of surplus value. Likewise, the Marxist approach to the state brackets their differences (i.e. whether they be dictatorships, monarchies, or liberal democracies) as a means of bringing out their common identity as capitalist states.

Second is the recognition of the interpenetration of opposites - how an object's appearance and functions derive from its surroundings. In class society this generally assumes a contradictory unity. For example, Ollman notes that a machine can be viewed as an instrument from which a capitalist can derive a profit, and from the workers standpoint a tool that increases production, thereby intensifying their economic exploitation. This insight can be extended to capitalist society itself: the bourgeoisie exist by virtue of extracting a surplus from the working class through economic means, while the working class must necessarily take part in this process in order to earn a living. Each depends and constitutes the other, even though their interests are diametrically opposed.

Third, the dialectical approach to process is expressed in the passage from quantity to quality, whereby quantative change reaches a point where the object undergoes a qualitative break. Engels famously demonstrated this with reference to how the application of heat to water caused its molecules to become excited to the point where they underwent qualitative transformation into steam. To illustrate with a sociological example, Marx noted that capital is only a social relation that came into being under a specific set of circumstances that emerged out of the contradictions of feudal society. The functions performed by the circulation of money were radically transformed when it reached a ‘nodal point’ and became capital. From here it went on to reorganise the division of labour, replacing feudal agricultural exploitation by capitalist workplace exploitation and effecting a qualitative change in the nature of society itself. For Ollman, this makes us sensitive to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ character of a process and undermines notions of ahistorical continuities.

Finally, Marx emphasises the role contradiction plays in his method as it reflects the contradictory character of capitalism. Understood by Ollman to be "the incompatible development of different elements within the same relation, which is to say between elements that are also dependent on one another" (ibid. p.14). Abstraction allows for this mutually supportive but contradictory character to be brought out and ‘weighed’ so that possible outcomes could be explored. For instance, Trotsky’s prognosis on the Second World War assessed the balance of class forces in Europe and forecast that war weariness would result in either revolution or a victory for fascist or Stalinist despotism (see Leon Trotsky 1973
In Defence of Marxism. For Ollman, there is anotherl revolutionary moment in the dialectical method. With its emphasis on change it iis self-evident that nothing can be eternal. What we hold dear today will be superseded tomorrow. The dialectical method allows us to become conscious of our role in society and aware of what can and must be done in the struggle against capitalism.

The direction dialectical research takes is made possible only through the particular character of Marx’s use of abstraction. It is not enough to merely acknowledge the research object is organic to a wider process and has a fourfold character. Ollman argues that Marx’s abstractions must delineate the object along three axes. First there is an ‘abstraction of extension’, a setting up of analytical spatial and temporal boundaries around the research object. Secondly, the abstraction of a level of generality. I.e. the degree of analytical focus, be it an individual, group, institution, state, mode of production or world system. Finally, the abstraction of vantage point - the position one takes up with regard to the research object. To illustrate these three coordinates, Ollman’s ‘Theses on the Capitalist State’ (an intervention in the ongoing debate among Marxists on the capitalist state - particularly the
exchange between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas) argues the protagonists each adopt a particular vantage point, a level of generality, and a set of social relations on which to construct their analyses. However, each only succeed in illuminating a particular aspect of the state. But if these positions were combined dialectically in the framework Ollman advocates a more rounded theoretical approach to the state could be the result.

The implications for a Marxian-Foucauldian encounter through the category of abstraction should be apparent. If we liken abstraction to a microscope then the argument can be made that Marx and Foucault operate at different levels of focus: Marx principally with macro-level social relations such as capital, class and the state; Foucault with the micro-level foundations where the capillaries of power position bodies and make them subjects. This kind of approach has already been taken up by Smart where he uses Foucault to enrich Gramsci’s ‘macro’ concern with forming hegemonic blocs. Here, Smart defines hegemony as a process that "contributes to or constitutes a form of social cohesion not through force or coercion, nor necessarily through consent, but most effectively by way of practices, techniques and methods which infiltrates minds and bodies, cultural practices which cultivates behaviours and beliefs, tastes, desires and needs as seemingly naturally occurring qualities and properties embodied in the psychic and physical reality (as truth) of the human subject" (Barry Smart, ‘The Politics of Truth and the Problem of Hegemony’ in David Couzens Hoy (ed) 1986
Foucault: A Critical Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell, p.160). Smart correctly draws attention to the micro arena, which has long been neglected by Marxists and provides a starting point for theorising a socialist politics of the everyday. However, though Smart’s contribution is insightful abstraction is not theorised - it is assumed but at the price of not addressing the differences between the two approaches. Having discussed Foucault’s genealogical method and Marx’s dialectical method, even with abstraction in mind the two cannot be straightforwardly compatible. The respective methods and the tool abstraction provides must undergo a theoretical transformation so that the conceptual strengths of each can be incorporated into a unified approach. It is therefore necessary for Foucault to critique Marx, and for Marx to critique Foucault.

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

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