On materialism and idealism
Image: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840)
grenzt sich mit dem Begriff „Bildungstrieb“ (1781)
A few ruminations on Endnotes’ critique of Platypus, as laid out in the closing plenary to the 2013 Platypus International Convention. These are just my thoughts, and as such are not necessarily indicative of anyone else’s opinion.
The contraposition some have latched onto lately ⎯ whereby the focus on politics/history of the Left = “idealist” while the focus on economics/history of the capital’s transformations = “materialist” ⎯ is more than a little crude. Of course, this is not at all to suggest that those members of Endnotes who first advanced the critique fall victim to such an unnuanced view. Considerably more intractable problems arise, however, for those who’ve tried to assimilate this critique to their own polemics against various “idealist” groupings they’ve recently vowed to destroy. Since their own aspiration is simply to erect a new international propaganda tribune (webzine) from which to spread socialism to the ignorant masses, they are forced to confront the embarrassing logical consequence of programmatic politics’ impossibility that the argument implies.
Doubtless, the argument is to be taken seriously. Its validity or invalidity cannot just be assumed. It would be overhasty to dismiss the thesis advanced by Théorie Communiste and others regarding programmatism out of hand. Part of the interest in critically engaging with the various currents of communization theory is that I feel there is quite a bit of common ground in our diagnosis of the present state of politics, especially as regards the (non-)viability of working-class militancy or mass forms of organization today. This remains so even if the emphasis we lay on the accumulation of past political defeats versus Théorie Communiste’s (and others’) emphasis on subsequent (post-1917, post-1968) transformations within capitalism’s mode of subsumption, real vs. formal, is somewhat different.
Nor, incidentally, do I think that these theses are incompatible or mutually exclusive, though one might still argue over granting priority to one or the other as the root “cause.” The peculiarities of the capitalist mode of production at any given moment or in any given “phase” are inevitably reflected, consciously or unconsciously, in the politics of those who organize against capitalism. There is no Archimedean point outside of reification from which one can level a sort of pure or transcendental critique. Hence the thesis that programmatism, or working-class political programs, are materially obsolete given the further development of capitalist production, must be taken seriously. But it is also possible that the defeat of past revolutionary movements itself contributed to subsequent transformations within capitalism. Without succumbing to the facile gesture of claiming these seemingly opposite perspectives are merely “two sides of the same coin,” I would at least like to contend that they are not as antithetical as they might at first appear.
From this it should be clear that the question is not just whether programmatic politics were merely the form of subjective self-organization “proper” to the proletariat in a prior period. If its propriety were determined simply by the objective (i.e., forces of production) and quasi-objective (i.e., relations of production) configuration of society, then a qualitative transformation of proletarian subjectivity would simply follow epiphenomenally from a transformation in the objective, organic composition of capital. Various social movements and political parties have played a vital role in attempting to overcome the productive relations of capitalism, in ways that cannot simply be chalked up to “real” vs. “formal” subsumption. In failing, they may well have played a very substantial role in the subsequent reconfiguration of capital.
The question appears thus: Did programmatic politics’ failure to ultimately overcome social production’s subjugation to capital itself contribute to the reconstitution of a capitalist society in which programmatism was no longer viable? Not just in the sense that people have become skeptical about programs, but where the potential subject (the proletariat) for which the political programs of the past had been intended, has disappeared as an historical force opposed to capitalism.
For example, the following narrative might perhaps seem plausible, even if only sketched in broad outline:
The defeats of 1848 quite possibly paved the way for liberalism triumphant and in power (i.e., Bonapartism), the establishment of the Manchester School consensus of laissez faire, laissez passer and free trade. The defeat of the Paris Commune following the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 quite possibly contributed to the panic and “Great Depression” of 1873, and hence to the rise of monopoly or finance capital in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The defeats of 1917-1923 gave birth to two ostensible “third ways” that could potentially navigate socialism and capitalism/barbarism: fascism and Fordism. WWII was settled in favor of the latter, as Keynesian planning structures, deficit-spending, and manipulation of the interest rate were then exported from the victorious United States to Europe under the Marshall Plan and Japan under MacArthur. Following the defeats of 1968 in France, the US, Mexico, and South America, as well as in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, Nixon’s artificial inflation of currency and the resulting Oil Crisis of 1973 gave way to a post-Fordist neo-liberalism founded on the Vienna (rather than the Manchester) School of Economics. Working-class political opposition to capitalism may no longer be feasible as a means to overcome it, but if so this might have much to do with the way capitalism has mutated as a result of past defeats.
Politics is doubtless ideology, even at its best, and as such reflects certain economic realities that historically develop. But ideologies tend to linger on, surviving the very circumstances that engendered them, acting so as to repercuss upon the material base. Hence “ideology as a material force.” Within a given historical period, the question of “lags” and “leaps” can be fairly raised. Certain forms of programmatic politics, to be sure, seem to simply tail behind the reified order of bourgeois society. Others seek rather to immanently transcend these ideological lineaments and encrustations by seizing upon the propitious moment. This raises the old issue of the relationship between being and thought, consciousness and existence. Which determines which, reciprocally or otherwise? In a traditional materialist lens, existence tends to determine consciousness, such that consciousness is only able to arise post festum, after the fact. But then on the other hand there is perhaps the possibility of the so-called “dialectical leap.” Anyway, to view the political expressions of a given epoch as merely reflexive (but thus adequate) responses to economic reality tends to ratify and in some ways alibi the various spontaneous revolts that result as the best that can be hoped for. This is a bit of a caricature, to be sure, but I think its basic thrust is correct. But this doesn’t, or rather shouldn’t, preclude a deeper investigation and materialist analysis of political economy in the present, or the sociological landscape that arises out of it. It might even necessitate it.