18 August 2011

Comments on Apprehensions of the Social; or Revisiting Smith -- why the aggregate is compelling and what the left needs to do

This started out as a comment on "Apprehensions of the social: Aggregate, collective, alienated force; or, Contribution to an explanation for why the left always fails," but it got too long, so I guess it is a separate post.

I think the distinction made in the original post between the aggregate, the collective, and alienated force brings some analytical rigor to the discussion. The aggregate, of course, was the vision of society put forward by political economy, beginning, notoriously, with Mandeville (Fable of the Bees), but achieving its doxic articulation with Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations). It is this classic articulation of the aggregate, which still echoes today, that seems to be causing much of the failure of the collective to gain traction. The question of what is the precise attraction to this articulation of society cannot of course be answered without digging into the layers of mediation between subjectivity and the modes of production under which we live. Which equally suggests that reinvigorating the collective as an alternative mode of subjectity would require a change in the mode of production. We are back to Marx 101.

But we (this “collective” blog) have not been discussing changing the mode of production. Reading across the posts, the discussion seems most concerned with issues of subjectivity and other (political) means of changing them, for example, through changes in organizing strategies (eg. What is Wisconsin On?). And reading across the posts, again, it seems that a main interest is to reinvigorate the sense of the collective. This seems somewhat the case when the banality of existence within the aggregate is contrasted with "participation in the collective (that) can inspire a powerful feeling of agency with the sense that the individual is part of a world-historical project or the feeling that one is realizing oneself by making oneself proper to the collective." So the collective is both an alternative to the aggregate and a way out of the aggregate (again, reading across posts, and taking the aggregate to be the dominate form of subjectivity under neoliberalism).

In response, I have a proposition with which I intend to account for the continuing allegiance to the aggregate as the self-understanding of society and from this propose a line of thinking with regards to moving beyond it.

I agree with the characterization of the appeal that the collective can generate, but in its original formulation, the aggregate too was an empowering concatenation that was a world-historical project of wealth and happiness creation. Permission to follow one's own desires, to make and spend money, was a radical proposal in the early eighteenth century, as evidenced by the general public disdain voiced vis Mandeville's argument. And it is this project of the pursuit of individual happiness (via consumption, then and now) that still echoes. So we need to ask, what is the nature of the alternative project? What is the project that makes society as collective more compelling than society as aggregate? Traditional Marxism located this project in collective ownership of the means of production, but this was the valorization of the proletariat under state capital, rather than the abolition of the proletariat, which is what a true overcoming of capital requires. In Marx's mature thought it is the mode of production that must change, but we are faced with the chicken-and-the-egg problem of what comes first -- a change in subjectivity or a change in the mode of production.

I take that the general question being discussed amongst us is what sort of politics might give us a world without the “permanent crisis” of capitalism, but we seem at times to be strategizing for the next battle against capital rather than overcoming it. My own vision, it would seem, is less about pitched battles in the streets than a general awakening to the possibility of an alternative. The process then is first intellectual, and then, political. And not intellectual in the sense of reading books, but that a mental switch is thrown. It requires the recognition of the alienated force and recognition that it is the result of our own social action. But recognition is not sufficient. Overcoming, I think, requires a radically creative vision of the relationship between labor, obtaining the means of subsistence, and the production of social wealth (in the fullest sense of arts, science, technology, knowledge). This is what Wallerstein was suggesting last December.

And here is where the aggregate and the political economy that first gave it formulation as the naturalized ahistorical grounds for "civilization" is most resilient. The still beating heart of Smith is that greater divisions of labor will produce greater social wealth, and that these divisions of labor only happen out of the desire to barter, truck, and exchange. That is, the production of social wealth arises only from the pursuit of self interest. I would offer that the Tea Party clearly demonstrates the continued resonance of this vision. The challenge, it seems then, is to devise a persuasive vision that either redefines social wealth in such a way as to cut the connection between it and the division of labor, or from the other side, to reorient our understanding of why a division of labor is socially useful (hint: it’s not to enable to pursuit of exchange). It seems that it is precisely this relationship between the division of labor, the labor process, and the social as the sphere of exchange that generates alienated force. Moreover, insofar as Smith's vision of society has been internalized, I think an explicit targeting of political economy -- unpacking and dismantling its assumptions -- is necessary in order to persuade people of the possibility of a different social order.


  1. I am concerned that this blog, so far, has overly emphasized the abstract dimension of the commodity form as it appears in the ideology of liberalism and neoliberalism with the abstractly equal and rational individual. Even as liberalism and neoliberalism as ideologies affirm this dimension of the commodity form, liberalism and neoliberalism as regimes of accumulation foster a critical discourse that emphasizes the concrete dimension of the commodity form. In the liberal period this can be seen in the workers' movement and in various pan-national and romantic movements that criticized the abstract character of liberalism, money, banks, the market in the name of a purportedly productive and concrete part of society, workers, farmers, etc. In the neoliberal period, various pan-ethnic movements, large and small, have flowered both in academia through the cultural studies departments and in political life through pan-religious groups or ethnic nationalism. Any theory of neoliberalism would need to account for the particular form of purportedly critical ideologies within the neoliberal period like pan-ethnic and pan-religious movements. (Croat, Serb, Catalan, Basque, Hutu, Tutsi, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Irish Catholic, etc. etc.)

  2. Good points. There is greater heteronomy amongst forms of subjectivity than we have generally acknowledged or discussed. I think our lack of attention to this is mainly due to a preoccupation with the state of political discourse and activism here in the U.S., in which we are assuming and arguing that the abstract individual is a source of the problem. The reasons for our neglect of the concrete dimensions of the commodity form is less obvious to me. And yes, you are right that a theory of neoliberalism does need to account for "purportedly critical ideologies" that explicitly or implicitly reject what has been characterized above as "the aggregate."

  3. Perhaps one way to attack the question of the veneration of the concrete dimension is to take on the discourse of main st. vs. wall street so rampant in the democratic party left. Frank Rich, Matt Taibi, Arianna Huffington and at times Paul Krugman spring to mind. Perhaps the blog is too soft on posts like this http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/finally-someone-to-run-against-wall-street/ and the general goal of reemployment and restarting capital accumulation. Krugman cannot deny the centrality of banks to capitalism, but the others certainly engage in a fanasy of the "euthanasia of the rentier" as Keynes put it.

  4. Frank, you're right that we've neglected that side of the debate. Speaking for myself, the reason I've been spending my time on the austerity advocates and the mainstream neoliberals is because of the surprising failure of the Keynesians to generate any political momentum whatsoever. The Main St-vs-Wall Street rhetoric was widespread for a short time in late 2008 and 2009, and certainly Krugman et al are trying their best to carry on that noble tradition, but the ease with which the Tea Party reversed what had seemed to be a liberal resurgence indicates the tenuous appeal that this particular approach holds at a political if not a popular level. The imbalance in Europe is similar, if less vulgar and morally charged.

    This raises the issue that I argued last year - neoliberalism seems to frustrate the kind of systematic formulations of dissent that could offer a path to a new regime of accumulation. The connections you draw between nationalism and the workers movement in the liberal period and, respectively, identity politics and the vestiges of Keynesianism under neoliberalism are real (I would hesitate to group fundamentalism in with nationalism/identity politics, but that would require more discussion). But their manifestation in the neoliberal period is a pale reflection of their heroic vigor and mobilizational capacity under liberalism.

  5. I don't necessarily see the work we've done as distinct from the work of accounting for critical discourse. As I seen it the past posts have focused both forms of subjectivity and material practices peculiar to neoliberalism (though there's been much less attention paid to the latter). While we have emphasized the line between these and apologetic or affirmative discourse I don't think there are wholly different structures connected to forms of dissent. The inaccessibility of the collective and the hegemony of the aggregate seems to me to be very crucial to the rise of identity based politics and the drive towards building immediate small scale alternatives. Noam Chomsky is a prime example of a dissenter from the perspective of the aggregate. That being said drawing that line could reveal some useful and interesting histories of the present.

    On the note of being soft on neo-Keynesians like Krugman I think you're very right. I think there has not been enough investigation as to why we cannot return to the fordist model of accumulation. There is a huge amount of nostalgia in the mainstream left for that more humane time. I find myself very often having to explain to people on the left that Fordism also failed, though I do feel unequipped to answer why we can't return to it.

  6. Perhaps we need to better distinguish between neoliberalism as an particular ideology, like libertarianism, and neoliberalism as the socially general ideology of a particular mode of accumulation.

    Earl writes, "The inaccessibility of the collective and the hegemony of the aggregate seems to me to be very crucial to the rise of identity based politics..." I wonder if you could spell this out a little more. It seems to me that it. It seems to me that cultural studies and ethnic nationalism, which flourished during the neoliberal period, understood themselves to be defending the concrete, integrated untity of a group against the rising tide of "americanization," liberalism, the market, money, etc. Perhaps I am miss-reading you, but it seems that you are arguing that our present regime of accumulation offers a vision of society that is only the Weberian/Smithian one of an aggregate of all social activity and forecloses the access to a Durkheimian collectivity. I would argue, with Adorno, http://townsendlab.berkeley.edu/sites/all/files/Society.pdf, that these two visions of society are mutually constitutive and that neither is adequate to the actual problem of society. The collectivity can be just as dominating-- at times more dominating-- than the aggregate. In certain ways, neoliberalism needs to be understood as a liberation from Fordism.

  7. AB, I like very much your formulation of the fundamental problem we're facing here. I should first clarify that my discussion of apprehensions of the social should not be taken as an affirmation of collective forms - the collective is, in its own (often far more violent) way, just as oppressive as its mirror image, the abstract individual. You're right that our ultimate goal should be overcoming both.

    But it seems to me that forms of collective consciousness also held within them a far greater capacity for understanding the true nature of the social, opening up paths on a popular basis to the kinds of recognition that you rightly point to as essential. Habermas's Legitimation Crisis is a very interesting text in this regard, since it demonstrates the real, perhaps unprecedented social possibilities that crystallized in the late 1960s before being shattered by the economic collapse of the 1970s.

    The goal should not be a return to mass collectivism, but we should try to understand what features of the Fordist era produced those most desirable aspects of collective thinking - so that we can pursue a regeneration of these forms as a political project. I've already suggested that the restriction of market forces was a key part of this, but there is much more to be thought thru. And the further complication arises that, unless we hope to return to life within narrow national communities, we will have to implement these structures within the very different context of a single global society.

  8. My thought regarding the connection between aggregate consciousness and identity politics had more to do with the death of meta-narratives than to the sense of collectivity as such. So I guess it's not exactly the same. Though identity politics has often been articulated around the vision of society composed of multiple "interest groups" competing for a share of the aggregate (wealth, attention, etc.). In this way identity politics is a sort of middle ground, preserving notions of the collective within a framework that atomizes these perspectives.