Monday, 31 August 2009

Monday Meme: Politics

It's been a long time since AVPS succumbed to meme fever, so when this one caught my eye I thought "why not?" This one is definitely for the politics anoraks.

First political experience During the 1987 general election my junior school hosted a mock election. As a 10 year old Tory boy I did Thatcher proud debating with the kids of local Labour luminaries and making sure no one gave the SDP/Liberal Alliance the time of day. I don't know if my efforts helped but the Tories romped home with a majority of 100+ votes!

First vote This will have been in 1995, by which time I'd left the cold dark heart of Conservatism far behind me and had become a Marxist thanks to life experience, A Level sociology and a year working in Derby Morrison's. In my village the local election was a straight up fight between the Tory stalwart and the dad of a girl at school I never particularly liked. But once I was in that booth the class consciousness kicked in and I duly put my cross next to Labour. (As an aside nearly everyone in my group of friends went and voted. The one who admitted to voting Tory was rightly branded a twat).

First demo I was a late comer to demonstrations but the first I went on was a bit of a monster. The summer of 1997 found me a very angry young Trot in the orbit of Workers' Power. I travelled with what must have been most of their membership to Amsterdam to take part in the People's March for Jobs (at least that's what I think it was called). I remember a turn out of around 50,000, Dutch coppers armed with some very big guns, stupid expensive beer prices and members of the proto-REVOLUTION group being assailed by the Sparts.

Last vote That would have been the European elections and council elections this year. I voted No2EU in the former and Labour in the latter - for want of anything better.

Last political activity Does booking a room for the last North Staffs TUC public meeting count? If not and discounting trade union and Stoke SP meetings, I suppose it has to be marching with the Shrewsbury 24.

Who to tag? How about
Though Cowards Flinch, Harpymarx, The Daily (Maybe) and Proper Tidy to start the ball rolling.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Foucault and History

So far the radical divergence between Marxism and Foucault has been explored through their respective treatments and understandings of power. Crucially, the former has traditionally been interested in the capitalist state and the kind of body required by the working class to install its own socialist state. Foucault on the other hand has charted the emergence and rise of particular constellations of power/knowledge and how they produce subjects and knowledges through their ‘microphysical’ positioning of bodies in discourse.

The respective macro/micro notions of power flow from the different levels on which their methods operate. This chapter seeks to go beyond a simple recapitulation of more differences between Marxism and Foucault. We argue here that a discussion of methodology identifies the grounds for a possible convergence between the two camps. The aim is to map this out so the sophistication of Foucault’s approach can be embedded in a broad explanatory framework capable of theorising all levels of social formations, while avoiding a lapse into essentialism and reductionism.

The exploration of method begins with a more detailed discussion of Foucault’s genealogy, which appears to put even more distance between itself and Marxism. But at this point of radical divergence the possibility of convergence is raised by the place ‘abstraction’ occupies in Marx’s method. While recognising the implications of Marx’s use of this conceptual tool, the space between Marx and Foucault is too great for an unproblematic wedding of the two to take place. Here the discussion turns to Althusser and it is argued the way he theorised social formations and recast Marxism is capable of sufficiently transforming both Marx and Foucault into compatible entities while simultaneously disgarding essentialist and irrationalist moments of both. The possibilities opened up by this approach are discussed in the concluding chapter.

Foucault and Genealogy

Here we are concerned with a more in depth treatment of Foucault’s genealogical method centering on his important 1971 essay,
Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. Presenting a broad outline of the approach, Foucault’s "genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any momentous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history – in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. Finally, genealogy must define even those instances where they’re also absent, the moment when they remained unrealised" (Foucault 1977, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, New York: Cornell, pp.139-40).

Foucault here privileges two heuristic devices: the methodological isolation of an occurrence from overarching historical explanatory frameworks (particularly evolution), and following Nietzsche Foucault calls for an historical investigation of ephemeral and ignored phenomena. For example, Nietzsche provided the beginning of such a history in his 1887 book
Genealogy of Morals. In his discussion of Nietzsche’s text in the original German, Foucault notes the word urspungs is deployed in two senses. First, it denotes origin. But Nietzsche makes an ironic use of it – he plays on its connotations of mystical and metaphysical origins (and the pursuit of them). Nietzsche made polemical use of this term for much the same reason Foucault found it useful for it undermines the metaphysics of origins, "what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the individual identity of their origin: it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity" (ibid p.142). That is to say a phenomena is not in its purest form at the point of its emergence but is born marked by the scars of its emergence, and it is these disparate conditions that genealogy seeks to unmask. Investigating what a discourse "forgets" (its marked Other) tends to undermine majestic and universalist pretensions by exposing their primitive beginnings. This can be visualised by the striking metaphor Nietzsche provided of a monkey that perpetually followed his reworking of the prophet Zarathustra.

Second, the name genealogy implies a study of a line of descent – in this case of a particular discourse/practice. In methodological terms this involves empirically winding back the film of history to the point where the discourse studied breaks qualitatively from what preceded it. For example, in
The History of Sexuality, Foucault notes the contemporary understanding of sex is rooted in the late 18th century at the point of confluence between the creation of a "class" body by the rising bourgeoisie and the growing perception of the population as a problem requiring management by the state. The discourses of sex grew along the axes of demography, pedagogy and medicine, producing a scientific (but discursive) apparatus. Prior to this point pre-industrial discourses of sex were very different and were for the most part embedded in Christian discourses of sin and tended to come under legislative rather than discursive regulation. Likewise the opening pages of Discipline and Punish contrast two very different forms of punishment, establishing a discontinuity between them that Foucault analyses.

Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exist in the present, this it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form to all its vicissitudes. Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion: it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents (Ibid p.146).
Keeping with the anti-epistemological and anti-teleological foundations outlined above Foucault is careful to rule out necessity as an explanation. Therefore this "effective history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men. The traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and for retracing the past as a patient and continuous development must be systematically dismantled" (Ibid p.153). Furthermore the eschewal of totalising practice means the genealogist occupies the "low ground" of being close to an object without metaphysical baggage intervening. In Foucault’s empirical genealogies this low ground is invariably the body. Hence it is no accident that Foucault’s theory of power seizes hold of bodies – it is the expression of his methodological outlook. In sum, genealogy "painstakingly exposes the tiny influences on a body that, over time, not only produce a subject of a certain sort, a subject defined by what it takes to be knowledge about itself and its world, but a subject under the illusion that it is a substantial, autonomous unity" (Prado 1995, p.36).

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

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Top Ten Trade Union Twitterers

The old brain isn't working so thought I'd share this list I've compiled, ordered by numbers of followers.

National Union of Students - 1,675
Workers Uniting - 1,317
Equity - 1,145
Unite - 1,060
Unison - 904
NUT Students - 324
Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union - 301
Public and Commercial Services - 290
University and College Union - 275
Trades Union Congress - 216


I had to struggle to find these. It seems large swathes of the trade union movement are yet to be won round to the benefits of Twitter. Especially surprising is the absence of the
National Union of Journalists and the Communication Workers' Union!

At least the
Socialist Party has climbed aboard the good ship Twitter. You can follow Marxist tweets for labour and youth here.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Stalin in 'Not a Nice Man' Shocker

As Paul observed yesterday there's been something of a decline in the liberal commentariat of late. Latest evidence of the trend comes courtesy from Monday's Comment is Free and the pen of James Marson. He demands the left must face up to Stalin's evil.

Speaking for myself, I'm never seen on
Stoke SP stalls without my Maoist overalls and bucketful of Stalin Society leaflets.

The core of Marson's argument is this:
There are three ways that people justify Stalin. First, he was a "successful dictator" in the second world war and the industrialisation drive; second, his record wasn't as bad as Hitler's; third, his ideology was more palatable.

The "successful dictator" argument is more or less the line that the Kremlin follows, with its glorification of the victory in the second world war and glossing over of everything else. But it is ahistorical to separate the bad from the good – they are both part of one whole.

The numbers game ignores the often-quoted words of Comrade Stalin himself: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Their ideologies may have differed, but Hitler and Stalin shared one thing in common – both were willing to sacrifice millions of individuals in the pursuit of their vision of perfection or harmony. Human life became a pathway to future aims; how many million sacrifices is indeed a statistic.

But what does it matter to those who died what Stalinism developed into? What does it matter to the dead and their families whether they were starved for being kulaks, shot for writing "nationalist" literature, thus impeding inevitable progress to socialist utopia, or killed for being Slavs and resisting the Nazis, thus making way for a perfect racial empire? It is surely less important why people were killed, than that they were killed. The fact that the apparent aim of Stalin's terrors – the socialist utopia – seems nobler to some than Hitler's vision of racial perfection, can offer no solace to those terrorised.
In conclusion, Marson argues the left is unwilling to face up to the devastation Stalinism wreaked on millions of lives. But if you ask me, Marson ought to get out more. Just like Andy Beckett's piece on the future of the left, it's completely clueless.

See, it's been many years since the far left in this country was dominated by Stalin's cheerleaders. If Marson had the slightest scintilla of knowledge about our movement, he'd know a sizeable chunk of Marxists were critiquing and condemning Stalin at the very moment his liberal left forebears were cooing over five year plans and Moscow show trials. If there's anyone who needs to face up to facts, it's him.

In fact the piece reads like a God that failed
mea culpa. If it's the case Marson has just realised Stalin wasn't a very nice man and the regime he presided over was the antithesis of socialism, then he should be afforded a very belated welcome to the real world. But being dazzled by the light of truth is no excuse for assuming the rest of the left is as dim as he.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Foucault and Political Theory

The emphasis placed on the state has declined in sociological discussions of power in recent years, coinciding with the declining fortunes of Marxism. This can be explained in part by a perceived inability to provide adequate answers to the problems social theory is concerned with today. As the introductory chapter demonstrated, contemporary preoccupations with identity politics and subject formation has facilitated and in turn were facilitated by the rise to prominence of Foucault’s work on the academic left. Much of Foucault's utility turns on the alternative conception of power he used to critique traditional political philosophy and the method of investigation he pioneered in unvcovering power’s complicity in the microphysics of subject formation.

Despite Marxism recognising that state power is always resisted owing to the contradictory nature of capitalist social formations, the monopoly of violence it institutionalises on behalf of the bourgeoisie is nevertheless a top-down understanding of power. This departure point of understanding power for Foucault is essentially a continuation of the traditions of political theory he criticises in his celebrated
Two Lectures he delivered in 1976. For Foucault the power of the monarch was institutionalised in 12th century France with the adoption of Roman law and remained intact until the French revolution. The formation of political philosophy took place against this institutional backdrop in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main conceptual features, such as the conceiving of power as domination, and regarding rights as checks upon the power of the sovereign were shaped by the conjuncture of its emergence. Foucault controversially argues the tools flowing from these concerns are incapable of asking "what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of the discourse of truth? Or alternatively, what type of power is susceptible of producing discourses in a society such as ours are endowed with such potent effects?" (Michel Foucault. (1976) 1980. ‘Two Lectures’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Brighton: Harvester, p.93). This is suggestive of an alternative conception of power where "there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth" (ibid). From this position, the argument that understands rights as limits on power (domination) needs standing on its head: right is an effect of power, it is one technique among many through which power operates.

Having turned political philosophy on its head, Foucault’s eschewal of sovereignty and right provides a methodological standpoint that analyses power from the bottom up. His genealogical analysis (see next chapter) proceeds from the extremities of power by exploring its effects; dispenses with notions of intentionality (and with it the ‘sovereign’ idea that the individual
possesses power) in favour of viewing power as a relation that relates to and changes its object; understands individuals that are changed, moulded, constituted by power are compelled to resist it and thereby modify the power relations that flow over them. For this to take place power must have knowledge of its objects and be capable of generating knowledges about them. Power and knowledge are necessarily implicated in each other’s operation, which is why Foucault fuses them under the term ‘power/knowledge’. Finally Foucault’s emphasis on power's effects allows for the study of multiple manifestations of power in their radical specificity without trying to frame this diversity in terms of an expressive essential human nature, or a simple reflection of bourgeois interests. In sum, Foucault provides a sophisticated model that can theorise social complexity of power by leaving behind the politics of sovereignty.

CG Prado in his 1995 book,
Starting With Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy shows just how this operates in Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Whereas Foucault’s earlier ‘archaeological’ works were concerned with the formations and rules of discourse abstracted from associations with power, the genealogical works trace the lines of descent of a number of political technologies of the body to illustrate the emergence of particular kinds of subjects. Foucault sets the scene in Discipline and Punish with an account of a botched mid-18th century public execution followed by a prison timetable from the early 19th century. Foucault here investigates the movement of power relations from public execution to private incarceration. In these examples the logics of hanging, drawing and quartering served as a public display of the monarch’s power, a practice designed to deter and remind the sovereign’s subjects that they are effectively (and actually) her/his property. However "the economic changes of the 18th century made it necessary to ensure the circulation of effects of power through progressively finer channels, gaining access to individuals themselves, to their bodies, the gestures, and all their daily actions" (Foucault 1980, p.152). The power of the sovereign became decentred, increasingly giving way to the ‘body’ of society. Law and punishment came to be defined in these terms. It was no longer useful for the convicted to be torn asunder in the Monarch’s name - better they become a subject for correction. Rehabilitation overrode retribution as the key principle of jurisprudence. Regulation was emphasised. To understand how this operated, Foucault offered the striking metaphor of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon - the "fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen … maintains the disciplined individual in his subjugation" (Ibid p.187). The subject is aware that at any time they could be observed without their knowledge. Therefore they internalise the external surveillance, giving birth to the penal subject. Thus by acting on the body in a particular way, a ‘soul’ (in the Cartesian sense) has been manufactured through the discursive techniques of the prison and the participation of its convicts.

The insights provided by Foucault’s genealogy of the prison are developed in
The History of Sexuality, an investigation of how we came to be regarded as sexual subjects. His task "is to define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world. The central issue is … to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said" (Foucault 1978, The History of Sexuality Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.11).

Foucault’s point of departure is premised on his denial of sexuality as a biological given, treating it instead as a product of discourse. Foucault’s discussion of the emergence of sexuality takes us back to the pre-modern era. He argues the regulation of sexual practices were the responsibility of ecclesiastical and legislative discourses and institutions. The married couple was located as the primary site of sexual behaviour - marriage functioned as a pact between families to reproduce; sex was geared toward procreation and were thus the target for sexual surveillance. Sex outside of marriage was ignored in the case of infants, and punished if it was between men. The 18th century saw the beginning of a mutation in this regulation of sex. Foucault notes the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem that had to be managed. The emerging nation-states had to know about sex in terms of its citizen’s capacity to reproduce and ability to perform self-discipline.

Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less: a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.

The 19th century saw an explosion of discourses around sex. The centrality of the married couple in the old discursive regime was repositioned as the unspoken norm of sexual behaviour. In contrast all other modes of behaviour that did not fit into this became marked by the discourses of sexuality. The ‘margins’ of sex were labelled and regulated by seizing hold of the body and learning (constructing) its sexual truths. To illustrate this shift, ‘the homosexual’ is an invention of the 19th century. Prior to this kinship, legislative and religious practices proscribed same-sex relations, but it was only with the explosion of discourses on sex in the Victorian era where the person who engaged in these acts became positioned as a homosexual subject. In this move from sex acts to sexuality-as-identity, the metaphor of ‘the confessional’ as a device to extract the truth of bodies assumes central importance.

The scientific colonisation of the confession was characterised by five devices: the confession was wedded to scientific methods of data collection and psychological techniques; the belief that sex is the root of all psychological maladies and the confessing of problems to an expert are essential for overcoming them; every act committed and sentence uttered is potentially symptomatic, rendering the interpretation of the confession problematic and decipherable only by experts; the shaping of discourse between analysand and analyst with accordance to the aim of providing useful knowledge that fits the above precepts; and to provide the raw material for knowledge. Cathartic effects were merely secondary. In sum, these devices produce sexuality as a viable object for scientific investigation. That is to say power saturates both the deployment of sexuality and the means of studying it, which in turn feeds back into the ensemble of power. Truth is not uncovered by the operation of knowledge; it is an effect of power. As Foucault puts it, "there is no escaping from power … it is always already present, constituting the very thing which one attempts to counter it with" (1980, p.82).

Foucault argues two basic forms of power can be discerned from his genealogies. First, power positions the body as a machine that can be set virtually any task. The disciplinary techniques that ensure its cooperation form an ‘anatamo-politics’ of the body. The second form positioned the body as a biological process open to a medical gaze that categorised birth, health, reproduction, death, etc. which in turn fed the biopolitics of population management. Taken together, the subjugation of bodies and regulation of population constitute ‘bio-power’.

The examples provided here offer profound implications for explanatory social theory. As Nancy Fraser notes in her 1989 book,
Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, "in revealing the capillary character of modern power and thereby ruling out crude ideology critique, statism and eceonomism, Foucault can be understood as ruling in what is often called a politics of everyday life. For if power is instantiated in mundane social practices and relations, then effects to dismantle or transform the regime must address those practices and relations" (p.26). Clearly there is a distance between Foucault’s ideas of power, which are diffuse, decentred, capable of producing subjects and intimately bound up with knowledges, and Marxism’s preoccupation with the securing of working class state power. Despite the acknowledgment of the importance of non-state institutions by Gramsci and Althusser, ultimately the state is regarded as the source of power and object of struggle. For Foucault, this radical variant of the politics of sovereignty has been superseded; "the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try and liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several decades" (The Subject and Power, in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University Press, p.216). This stance involved an exploration of the limits of subjectivity, on investigation into how the "growth of capabilities [can] be disconnected from the intensification of power relations" (The Use of Pleasure 1986, p.48). The genealogical method was designed to show how power shapes and produces discourses so that activists today are placed to understand its flows and resist its ordering. It is to a more in depth discussion of Marx and Foucault’s method, and their possible convergence at this level, to which we turn in the next chapter.

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

Monday, 24 August 2009

Gramsci, Althusser and Hegemonic Struggle

The Marx-Engels-Lenin thesis forms the foundation for Gramsci's stress on the need to take political and ideological struggle seriously. Though it is important to appreciate the repressive nature of the state, an insurrection would be unthinkable if the battle for the hearts and minds of the working class had not already been won. It means recognising "the permeation throughout civil society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs, morality, etc. that is in one way or another supportive of the established order and the class interests that dominate it" (Carl Boggs. 1976. Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press, p.39). Class struggle for Gramsci permeated all levels of society. The immediate strategic task of the revolutionary party is to forge a hegemonic counter-weight, presupposing "that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed – in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity" (Antonio Gramsci. 1971. Selections From the Prison Notebooks. Eds. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.161).

Therefore the revolutionary party must not only win the working class to socialism but also appeal to the interests of other class groups and fractions. To borrow a phrase from Lenin, the party must become the ‘tribune of the oppressed’, committing itself to addressing and providing answers for oppressions that immediately appear independent of class. Finally Gramsci affirms the classical theory of communism, the withering away of the state and the class basis for socialism. He states "since every party is only the nomenclature for a class, it is obvious that the party which proposes to put an end to class divisions will only achieve complete self-fulfilment when it ceases to exist because classes and therefore their expressions, no longer exist." (ibid p.152). Gramsci therefore locates the state as the chief objective of revolutionary politics.

Althusser in his celebrated
notes on ideology agrees with Gramsci that the institutionalisation of violence is one aspect of the state. Alongside these ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ (RSA) co-exist a number of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISAs). Under this heading Althusser groups the institutions that constitute civil society, such as organised religion, families, the legal system, political parties, educational bodies, etc. The analytical distinction Althusser makes between ISAs and the RSA is fourfold. Firstly there is a plurality of ISAs whereas there is only one coercive apparatus wielded by the state. Second the RSA and ISAs correspond to a division between the public and the private respectively. Althusser then goes on to ask rhetorically how a ‘private’ institution such as the family can be regarded as a state apparatus. He suggests the functional effects it has by virtue of its socialising role ultimately produces the kinds of subjects required by capitalism and thus buttresses the state. Third, the distinction between the two hinges on the predominant character of the apparatus. The police in liberal democracies are saturated in ideologies around law and order and crime prevention. But their institutional function – of being the first line of the state’s defence – predominates over the ideologies their organisation secretes. Conversely, the nuclear family tends to be a site where (in most cases) a limited amount of violence is deployed against children, but in sum this is just one aspect of a socialising process that for the most part relies on non-violent means that generates particular subjects. Fourth, class struggle is central but operates differently across the RSA and ISAs :
The class (or class alliance) in power cannot lay down the law in the ISA’s as easily as it can in the State apparatus, not only because the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions there for a long time, but also because the resistance of the exploited classes is able to find means and occasions to express itself there, either by the utilisation of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in struggle. (Louis Althusser 1971 ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy. London: Monthly Review Press, p.165).
The implication here is Althusser endorses the kind of long drawn out struggle sketched by Gramsci, where the ISAs are overwhelmed and transformed into revolutionary strong points in the long march to state power.

It is also necessary here to discuss Althusser’s original contribution to Marxism – his treatment of the micro-level processes of subject generation. Taking his cue from a sentence in Marx’s
1859 Preface, Althusser locates ideology in the position of mediator between an individual and the wider social world; it occupies ‘the imaginary relation of …individuals to the real relations in which they live’ (ibid). Ideology has a real, material existence. To illustrate ideology's materiality, Althusser notes the rituals, rules, and proscriptions characteristic of religious ideology is materialised in the practice of individuals and collectives that hold to these beliefs. Ideology also plays an active role in the constitution of individuals as subjects. Without it constituted subjects ideology cannot operate. The multiple influences of the ISAs interpellates us as subjects that think of ourselves as autonomous and free-willed entities, because this is ideology’s mode of address. To help understand this, Althusser offers the metaphor of being hailed in the street by a police officer. When they shout ‘hey you!’ the individual realises they are recognised by power and act accordingly. But in a society saturated by ideology this process of interpellation is always-already present. For example, the family ISA begins to constitute an unborn child as a subject through the rituals and practices surrounding birth. Therefore Althusser adds a new domain of analysis to Marxist politics.

Leaving aside many of the criticisms levelled at Althusser from within Marxism itself, there are two important charges that need addressing. The most common objection is that Althusser limits the scope of resistance, that it is circumscribed by the top-down programming of ideology, reducing individuals to what ethnomethodologists would call ‘cultural dopes’. This attribution of fatalism is a misplaced criticism. Althusser recognised the constant presence of the class struggle in the ISA’s, which implies interpellation is far from a uniform process. Subjects will always be contradictory entities whose degree of adaptation/resistance to the social order is dependent on the broad balance of class struggle throughout a given social formation. However this implication has to be teased out as it remains an untheorised silence in Althusser’s discussion.

The second criticism addresses the choice of terminology. Miliband in his 1977 book,
Marxism and Politics argues that Althusser confuses class and state power, collapsing the former into the latter with his designation of institutions such as the family as an ideological state apparatus. This puts undue emphasis on the state that could lead to an overestimation of its power and an under-appreciation of the potency of other forms of working class power – such as unions and cooperatives. Miliband favours a more balanced approach where the strategic obstacle presented by the state is tempered by recognition of the diffuse character of class struggle. This however is a problem of language and the tendency to interpret Althusser in strict functionalist terms. Althusser's work may assume a functional appearance, but at least where politics are concerned Althusser and Gramsci are one on the issue of political strategy.

Nonetheless the additions made by Gramsci and Althusser enrich the Marxist theory of the state rather than signal a significant departure from it. There is a ‘red thread’ running back to Marx that identifies the state as the lynchpin of ruling class power, recognises this power in the last analysis rests on an apparatus of organised coercion, that ruling class ideas obscure this through discourses that mystify the nature of the state, and finally recognises that the emergence of socialism depends on the ability of the working class to capture state power in order to dissolve it.

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

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Mass Effect and Ideology

Since becoming a X-Box widower I've seen some contemporary games up close. It's all very strange for me as I haven't played any game at length apart from Civ III for about 10 years. And things have moved on from the PlayStation haven't they? I can remember marveling at the scratchy digitised speech and four colours onscreen my beloved ZX Spectrum struggled to creak out of its chip set. And now? The advances are mind-blowing. But anyway, one of the games CBC has enjoyed playing is Bioware's 2007 masterpiece Mass Effect. This science fiction role playing game casts you as a gun-toting space warrior out to save the galaxy.

As a role-playing game
Mass Effect comes with a mythos every bit as complete as Star Trek or a Games Workshop offering. Set in 2183 the Human Systems Alliance is a newcomer to the community of galactic civilisations, known collectively as Citadel Space after the alien megastructure that is the seat of interstellar governance. Being something of an upstart species, there is tension between humanity and the Turians - who fought a very brief war after a bungled first contact. And there's some generalised resentment among humans toward the rest of the Citadel races for keeping us on a leash and not according us full member status on the community's governing council. However, when Saren, a Turian spectre turns rogue the council are forced to raise Shepard (you) to spectre status and go after him. During the course of the pursuit it becomes clear Saren is involved in a plot that could wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. It falls to Shepard to stop him and his allies.
Mass Effect was extremely well-received by the gaming press and it's not difficult to see why. With game mechanics that owe more to table top games than its console-based brethren, a morality system that effects plot outcomes in the game, satisfying combat sequences with very big guns and an immersive story line it is, as one reviewer noted, like playing a novel. It is so good that it can be entertaining to watch as well. The BC household is definitely looking forward to the release of the sequel early next year.

Some reviewers have noted comments on contemporary issues within the game. One of your antagonists is a species called the
Geth - a race of mechanoids who rebelled against their creators, the Quarians. On top of this the game's deadly threat comes from the Reapers, a race of ancient psychotic killing machines bent on galactic-level genocide. Through these dangerous enemies Mass Effect is able to tick the artificial intelligence anxiety box. And there is racism too. Human xenophobes are not keen on alien races and there is a growing chauvinist movement back on Earth. It's up to the player whether one endorses these sentiments in their dealings with other races or challenge the casual racists they encounter.

However the science fiction is pretty derivative. Ships can traverse the galaxy in a blink of an eye thanks to
mass relays (i.e. jump gates), and a major plot point involves the fate of a prehistoric but extinct spacefaring race, the Protheans.

Another (depressing) derivative feature carried over from the likes of
Star Trek and Babylon 5 is the preponderance of humanoid species. This is the most obvious place where ideology starts rearing its ugly head. It signifies a poverty of imagination - after all, while TV science fiction has real physical limits on what aliens can look like that isn't the case in video games. There is zero appreciation of scientific speculation on extra-terrestrial life. The alien races are also manifestations of particular human traits in much the same way the aliens of Star Trek are. The Taurians are conscientious public servants. The Salarians are technological fetishists. All Hanar are devout. The Krogan are impulsive and ultra-violent.

By far the most questionable set of essentialist aliens are the
Asari. A lot of science fiction has a problematic relationship with gender and Mass Effect is no different. The Asari are a race of blue-skinned asexual humanoids, but just so happen to have the hegemonic hour glass-perfect bodies of human women. Their culture is communicative and based on cooperation and consensus, not competition. They have an ability to empathise with others and are exceedingly spiritual beings. I don't know what concerns me more - that a mass media artifact like Mass Effect can get away with portraying women in a one-dimensional fashion or that those who conceived the Asari saw it fit to brand hegemonic femininity alien. It's also worth noting that apart from humans, all the dozens of characters you encounter from the other races (apart from the Rachni queen and your Quarian squad member, Tali'Zorah) are male. And yet it's only the femininity of the Asari that elicits comment.

Then there is the persistence of capitalism.
Mass Effect takes the ideology of capitalism as natural and eternal to absurd extremes. Not only is the Human Systems Alliance a science fiction extension of what we have today replete with rogue corporations (Blade Runner, Alien), crime syndicates and mercenaries, but every alien society is organised around production for profit too. This only serves to feed back into the natural/eternal assumptions basic to all capitalist ideology.

A final couple of points refer to the view of history underpinning the game mythos.
Mass Effect is as far from Civ III as any other action-based role playing video game, but both are premised on struggle, albeit struggle between essentialised and homogenous civilisations. In Civ they were human, here they are different species. But in both cases they neatly map onto the tropes deployed in nationalist and chauvinist thinking. Second this is combined with our old discredited 19th century friend - the Great Man view of history. Commander Shepard is one of these great wo/men and on your shoulders alone rests the fate of the entire galaxy. Everyone else is a no mark buffeted by your historical wake. This is a Randian world where social complexity scarcely gets a look in and the cult of individuality is fetishised.

That said, without all this wouldn't video games be boring?

One last point. The left has no problem reviewing films, TV shows and books to draw out the ideologies curled up inside them, but when was the last time you saw a video game get a critical review in one of our publications? As ever I fear the left have been slow off the mark. Video games are now bigger than the film industry. Famously in its first week
Grand Theft Auto IV grossed over $500 million. Every day millions of people play games with crude ideological excrescences that wouldn't appear so unabashed in film or TV. The odd scathing polemic in say Socialism Today wouldn't have the global games industry quaking in its boots, but it could help us be more alive to ways some of the baser capitalist ideologies continue to be transmitted.

New Left Blog Round Up

Seems ages since I last did one of these. But anyway, there are a few new left wing blogs that have caught my eye this last month that deserve wider circulation.

First up is the blog of
Ryde Trades Council. It grew to some prominence over the Vestas dispute and has produced some excellent agitational pieces in support. The politics it espouses are more radical than you might expect as well.

Next is
Capital D, which, to mark his move from Manchester to London is the new incarnation of Dave from Complex System of Pipes. Readers of the old blog will be familiar with what to expect - short but incisive pieces of commentary and the odd bit about life in the SWP. You can follow Dave on Twitter here.

Long time readers of Socialist Unity will be familiar with the sensible contributions Barry Kade has made to many a discussion. And since January this year Barry has had his own
blog. Subtitled 'commentary on contemporary socialisms' most of his posts, as you would expect, have a strategic flavour.

Allow Me to Explain is a new US-based blog that unapologetically fights for global revolution. As the author puts it "I am a proletarian revolutionary and supporter of the Partisans of World Revolution (PoWR). We fight for the abolition of the capitalist system of exploitation so that a world of material abundance, free from inequality, oppression, wars and other social ills can be created. Through this blog I will convey my thoughts and opinions on various of subjects in hopes of contributing, however modestly, to the struggle for the liberation of humanity." Admittedly I've never heard of PoWR (nice acronym) but AMTE is an excellent blog with a good mix of the cultural, political and geo-political.

Apologies to the next group blog if I get their history wrong. A few years ago there was a falling out on the well-known
Urban 75 bulletin board. A group of the more political posters left and set up an alternative - Meanwhile at the Bar. Fast forward a few years the comrades behind it have set up a blog. So far comrades have blogged on quantitative easing, the future of the left, the far right, climate camps among other things. With a group of talented writers plus the backing of a medium sized bulletin board behind it, I wouldn't be surprised if MatBlog makes a big splash over the next year.

It seems scarcely a month goes by without a
Socialist Party member entering the blogging fray. The latest is the Crazy Life of Socialist V, a comrade with Brighton branch of the party. The blog promises to be a mix of the political, the ranty and the observational. You can follow V on Twitter here.

It might be stretching it to call
Simon Fletcher's site a new blog seeing as it's been around since last September, butas it hasn't been featured before ... For those who haven't encountered Simon before, his about more or less sums things up, so do not be surprised to be greeted with postings from a social democratic perspective. You can follow Simon on Twitter here.

While being neither new nor a blog, the
Tigmoo aggregator gathers the latest from trade union blogging - be they Labour-loyal or outside the party. Potentially a very useful resource.

And that's it for this month. If you know of any new socialist, feminist, green left and trade unionist blogs let me know and they'll get a plug in four weeks time.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Marx, Engels, Lenin and the State

Over 150 years have lapsed since Marx and Engels unleashed the Communist Manifesto on the world. In the time since this programmatic document made its entrance generations of socialists have grappled with the political barriers thrown up by capitalism in the course of its development. The initial conflict in the workers movement between its reformist and revolutionary wings gradually gave way after the split between the Second and Third (Communist) International to a consideration of the problems of hegemony, particularly the ways hegemonic struggle tips the balance of class struggle in favour of the working class, up to the point where it has captured state power. The aim of this chapter is to examine the views of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, and Althusser so that a model of the Marxist view of power can be read off from their writings. This enables the critique Foucault's critique of statist political theory to be explored, including the alternative understanding of power he proposes and the kind of strategies that can be employed to resist it. This chapter is concerned with establishing the divide between Marxism and Foucault so that the problems of an encounter between the two can be identified.

The classical Marxist theory of the state can be said to begin with this famous phrase from the
Manifesto: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie". This succinctly expresses the positions Marx and Engels set down in the German Ideology – that history is a story of continual class struggle across successive modes of production, of which capitalism is merely the latest. But what marks capitalism out from the previous modes of production is its tremendous development of the forces of production, providing a material basis for a society in which the fruits of labour can be enjoyed by all as opposed to a tiny minority. As such, the state "is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’, and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state" (Engels 1978 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, p. 151) For Engels, the state is concerned with managing the contradictions of capitalist society as well as defending the social order.

Because of the close intellectual relationship between Engels and Marx, it could reasonably be assumed Marx would have concurred with these views that post-dated his death. Indeed, a cursory examination of the evolution of Marx’s views on the state reveals a gradual evolution toward this position. The most significant sea change in his mature outlook occurs around the time of the 1848 revolutions that broke out across Europe. Prior to this time the views of Marx and Engels, argues Lenin in
The State and Revolution were abstract propositions. Marx’s 18th Brumaire was his first concrete study of state power. In his famous letter to Kugelmann on April 12, 1871, Marx wrote
If you look at the last chapter of my 18th Brumaire, you will find that I declare: the next French Revolution will no longer be an attempt to transfer the bureaucratic-military apparatus from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the real precondition for every people’s revolution on the continent. (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers, p.247)
In other words, the workers must dispense with the existing bourgeois state apparatus and raise their own organisation that can effectively defend its power from counterrevolution. These findings were reinforced for Marx in his investigation of the 1871 Paris Commune in The Civil War in France, where the armed workers failed to decisively move against the old regime and paid a blood price with thousands of dead communards. Marx was keen these lessons were not lost on the German workers' movement over which he and Engels exerted some influence. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme attacked the programme of the newly unified Social Democratic Party. He argued it masked the nature of capitalism and obscured the immediate political tasks in front of the German proletariat. As part of his polemic, Marx discusses his theory of the transition to communism. He notes that "(B)etween capitalist and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation of one to the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" (Karl Marx 1966, New York: International Publishers, p.18). The key word here is transition. If the state is the result of irreconcilable class antagonisms, then the creation of a workers' state marks the beginning of the end for state power per se. Provided the emerging socialist order is victorious against counter-revolutionary reaction, the development of socialism (understood here as massive thoroughgoing democratisation of society) destroys the economic basis of class. Therefore, the state – understood as an instrument by which one class oppresses another – is rendered superfluous. The state withers as it gives way to the general administration of things.

The degree of clarity achieved by Marx and Engels in relation to the state became muddied in mainstream Marxist circles after their deaths. In 1899 Bernstein published his
famous work on the possibility of a peaceful reformist road to socialism, sparking off the revolution vs. reform debate. He argued developments in capitalism had rendered the need for insurrection redundant. The development of the cooperative movement, the important role trade unionism occupied in challenging the absolutism of capital in industry, and the extension of the franchise that saw social democracy increasing the number of deputies sent to the Reichstag meant, for Bernstein, that socialism could come about gradually through reform of the economy and state. This position implies the state is a neutral institution; a machine that can either defend or displace capitalism by whatever party is in office. Secondly the state is viewed a source of power - albeit one which rises above class interests. Despite departing significantly from the views of Marx and Engels, Bernstein fundamentally agreed with the emphasis they placed on the state. Unsurprisingly the debate that enveloped the international workers movement after the publication of Bernstein’s views were kept strictly within the limits of the Marxist tradition. The primacy of the state was not challenged; the points of contention were over the content of the concept, while other forms of power tended to be neglected.

The debate itself was cut short by the outbreak of war in 1914. Up until this point the majority of the Second International had gone against the Bernstein heresy. However, for the left this veneer of Marxist orthodoxy covered for the reformist daily practice and outlook of social democracy. In her famous pamphlet,
Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg argued Bernstein’s theoretically expressed already existing practice and therefore the roots of reformism ran very deep. This was confirmed at the outbreak of war – both the reformist and orthodox Marxist mainstream immediately sought to protect their political organisations by pandering to the genuine upsurge of nationalist fervour. Despite resolving at the 1913 Basle conference to launch a general strike at the outbreak of war, the International broke off into its national components with each supporting its own country’s war effort, and voting for war credits where possible. There were few but ultimately important exceptions to this rule. It is at this conjuncture of war and the collapse of social democracy in the face of it that Lenin ‘rediscovered’ the Marxist theory of the state.

The first thing to note about Lenin’s
The State and Revolution is its pedagogical and polemical nature. Lenin recapitulates the arguments of Marx and Engels on the state, particularly emphasising the necessity of worker’s power and using it as a foil for attacking Bernstein-inspired revisionism and ‘mainstream’ Marxists (particularly Kautsky, the Marxist ‘pope’) for "forgetting" the classical teachings. By doing this Lenin was able to win the brand of orthodoxy for revolutionary politics. Secondly, it was a common practice of Lenin’s to ‘bend the stick’ in his writings to emphasise a particular point. Therefore because he analytically prioritises the coercive character of the state and the political goal of an insurrection, it does not mean that the problems of political struggle and hegemony were of no concern. In this light the argument should be viewed as a heuristic device aimed at bringing attention to the repressive character of the state that was ignored/forgotten by mainstream and revisionist Marxism.

For Lenin the state is the most important institution for the maintenance of bourgeois class power.
A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men that serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organisation of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters (in Selected Works in One Volume, Moscow 1969, p.270).
This passage expresses the importance of the state for Marxism and advances the thesis that the ability of a class to rule ultimately rests on its monopoly of the means of violence via the machinery of the state. Having established the state’s class character he moves on to the discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat - dictatorship in this sense is used to refer to the rule of a class, which can take many different forms. Briefly arguing that one can only really be a Marxist if one recognises it as a necessary moment on the path to socialism, the workers' state nevertheless "will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters – of the minority. Communism alone is capable of providing really complete democracy, and the more complete it is, the sooner it (the state) will become unnecessary and wither away of its own accord" (ibid, p.328). The dictatorship of the proletariat therefore lays the basis for the disappearance of the working class as a class, thereby rendering state power increasingly superfluous, gradually vanishing as socialism advances toward a communist future.

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

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Introduction: Marxism and Post-Marxism

From the perspective of socialist politics, social theory is at an impasse. The identification of Marxism with the USSR and its collapse, coupled with the neo-liberal offensive against working class organisations and politics and the rise of post-structuralism in the humanities has led to a large-scale retreat of socialist activism in Britain. The Labour left subsists at a very low level despite a rise in trade union membership and the election of a slate of union leaders to the left of Tony Blair. The Marxist left outside of the Labour Party is probably in a worse state. The majority of the Communist Party of Great Britain wound itself up in 1991, after a protracted period of factional in fighting. With the notable exception of the Scottish Socialist Party, the principal groups tend to plough their own political furrows. Where Marxist theory is concerned, its development by the revolutionary groups consist of a few insights concerning Blair’s remoulding of British politics, or the nature of contemporary ‘multiculturalism’. But for the far left Marxism has stood still since the days of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky (or Stalin, depending on which group you ask). The revolutionary left has bearly acknowledged the developments in social theory over the last sixty years. Freudo-Marxism, Structuralism, Phenomenology, Structural Marxism, and Postmodernism have either been dismissed out of hand or ignored by hermetically sealed sects. Too little theory but plenty of activism tends to be the hallmark of the left.

Unfortunately similar observations can be made of the contemporary academic left, except the terms of the problem are reversed. Anderson’s famous tour of Western Marxism1 advances the argument that it was a product not of theory being enriched by working class experience, but the result of Hegelian Marxism articulating itself with bourgeois philosophy. This has led to theory’s retreat from an engagement with class in favour of issues around identity politics and subject formation, which has accelerated the emergence of post-Marxism(s). But this too is a quantitative extension of the process diagnosed by Anderson. It is the result of a variety of Marxism2 and its encounter with poststructuralism. However, unlike Western Marxism’s relations with bourgeois philosophy, Marxism assumed the subaltern pole in the fusion. That is despite the alignment of academia with identity politics, the relativising and obfuscatory tendencies that post-structuralism brings to the relationship undermines the explanatory efficacy provided by its recessive Marxist partner, widening the gap between theory and practice that has been the unfortunate hallmark of Western Marxism.

This charge can be levelled at Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy3, which probably remains the core text of post-Marxism. Here Laclau and Mouffe performed a genealogy on the concept of hegemony in the Marxism of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, and from there elaborate an alternative informed by their readings of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. The discussion of Marxism and hegemony takes its point of departure from a mechanistic understanding of Marx’s famous 1859 Preface4, an approach that informed the Marxism of the 2nd International.5 This ‘official’ Marxism articulated by its principle theorists (Kautsky, Plekhanov) was really a positivist deformation of Marxism that plotted the objective laws of capitalism and predicted a mechanical grinding out of an inevitable path to socialism. Before this occurred the practice of Marxist workers' parties was to organise workers economically (in unions, co-ops, etc.), politically (seeking to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism through the struggle for reforms), and generally ready the class for the apocalyptic cataclysm awaiting capitalist society. Laclau and Mouffe argue that the working class here is conceptualised as an homogenous unity, propelled by ‘History’ to tackle the historic tasks pre-set for it. Their discussion shifts at this point toward the revolutionary left wing of the International6 and the attempts of Luxemburg, Lenin, and Gramsci to come to grips with the presence of contingency in history.

In their review of Luxemburg’s views on workers’ spontaneity and the mass strike, Laclau and Mouffe note how she recognised the disparate and immediate struggles needed organising into an over-arching symbolic unity capable of challenging capital. For Laclau and Mouffe this stress on consciousness conflicted with ‘historical necessity’, a contradiction that Luxemburg resolved by ascribing the fragmentation of the working class subject the status of a transitory moment. This in the end would by overcome by the mechanical laws of capitalism, which would homogenise the class and organise its own overthrow.

Lenin more forcefully took up contingency. In the semi-feudal conjuncture in which he was working the Russian working class made up no more than 10% of the total population7. Applying the inevitabilist schema to this situation would suggest waiting for capitalism to develop toward the point where the peasantry were displaced as the most numerous class by the workers. After this prolonged period, capitalism would collapse and socialism would be born from its ashes8. Lenin rejected this. He argued a successful socialist strategy required a class alliance between the workers and the peasants – a political unification of different class subject positions that a socialist politics could then be based on. This appreciation of contingency helped the Bolsheviks forge a peasant-worker alliance that eventually led to their successful seizure of power. Laclau and Mouffe appreciated the democratic potentiality of Lenin’s notion as it provides for a hegemonic process in which the play of differing subject positions is allowed. Their chief criticism is that Lenin quickly closes down this potential by prioritising the role of the vanguard party, which derives its position by ontologically privileging the working class. The character of the party itself argues Smith9 was that of a top down infallible leadership presiding over an undemocratic monolith, which is far from conducive to a dialogic process.10 Here, other subjectivities are just instrumental stepping-stones to be used along the path to working class power. This is an authoritarian hegemony.

For Laclau and Mouffe, Gramsci took hegemony further. Using Lenin’s idea of class alliances as his point of departure Gramsci founds his idea of hegemony on the requirement to provide a moral and intellectual leadership capable of forging a collective will, which would have the result of taking the alliance to a higher level. The resulting ‘historic bloc’ is politically complex. The ideological binding agent must traverse the diverse subject positions within the bloc, speaking to each and securing their allegiance to the aims of the overall hegemony. However as far as Laclau and Mouffe are concerned Marxism treats the economy as a self-contained entity that constitutes social agents and endows them with certain historical interests. Therefore Marxist discussions of contingency can only ever lapse back into an essentialist reliance on necessity despite the stress on providing ideological elastic. Gramsci is also trapped by the historical necessity/contingency tension. In the last analysis the bloc is secured by the participation of the working class within it, whose unity is always confirmed by the necessary laws of the economy. Therefore the articulations taking place within the bloc are always subject to determination by these outside pressures. But the logics of hegemony tend to undermine this theoretical closure. If hegemony is ensured by a negotiation between the different subject positions contained within it (as it is in Gramsci) this suggests identity with a historic bloc is not fixed apriori by class. It is therefore only a short leap to the position that the principle of identity is unfixity.

The consequences here are two fold. In the first place there is no necessary correspondence between the working class and socialism, meaning that no position can be ontologically and epistemologically privileged above another. Secondly, socialism must be articulated by negotiating between the different positions emerging from and shaped by multiple struggles. This in turn must lead to a rethinking of the symbolic unity that secures an historic bloc, but without the closure provided by class.

Laclau and Mouffe’s stance is problematic from the standpoint of explanatory social theory. By removing necessity from the hegemonic equation they move in the direction of absolute contingency. In other words, their pluralist discursive account of hegemony treats society as an open-ended fractured totality, where free-floating discourses constitute multiple subject positions that eternally struggle and contest their own identities between themselves and each other. History here is a dense web of accidents and plural interests. On one level this position may have a certain heuristic value but Laclau and Mouffe do not provide the tools capable of navigating it. As Wood11 notes, Laclau and Mouffe’s conception of hegemony means socialism cannot arise organically because no interests are tied to it – rather socialism becomes a good idea that must be inserted into the social from the outside. This differs from the Marxian conception in which ‘socialism was… viewed… in the sense that the objectives of socialism was seen as real historical possibilities, growing out of existing social forces, interests, and struggles’.12 Furthermore their post-Marxist position contains no arguments as to why socialism is desirable, or indeed a theoretical apparatus capable of determining what particular identities are particularly receptive to socialist politics. In fact, the move to contingency implies the ruling out of such an operation. Callinicos remarks ‘a social theory which does not attend to the relative causal weight of different practices, institutions, and agents is strategically worthless and conceptually empty’.13 Therefore Laclau and Mouffe might be useful in their theorisation of the negotiated nature of hegemony but by adopting a model that cannot contextualise it in real social struggles serves to handicap their contribution.

If this observation can be made of Laclau and Mouffe then other influential post-Marxisms that also adopt a play of contingency are similarly prone to the same kind of problems. Such examples as Lyotard’s assault on ‘metanarrativity’ and Baudrillard’s displacement of the real by an unknowable ‘hyperreality’ are particularly irresponsible forms of social theory that could hinder a political project concerned with reviving the explanatory goals of social theory, thereby reopening the path toward a fusion of theory and practice.

This paper locates itself in such a political project. It aims to make a modest contribution toward it by making the case for an encounter between an open-ended activist Marxism and the work of Foucault, who is widely regarded as having provided significant theoretical advances over Marxism in a number of areas. Unlike some other forms of French post-structuralism, Foucault’s project is concerned with elaborating accounts of social phenomena aswell as providing a basis for a new kind of politics. It is my belief that an encounter with Marxism can mutually reinforce the materialist aspects of both approaches and provide a basis to move beyond the theoretical impasses that have marked recent radical social theory.

The structure of the paper is as follows. The first chapter is concerned with an examination of the open ground between the two approaches by reviewing the development Marxist views of power from Marx to Althusser, the critique that can be made of it from a Foucauldian standpoint, and an examination of Foucault’s views. The second chapter links their differing conceptions of power to the levels on which Marx and Foucault’s methods operate. The differences between these will be explored via a Foucauldian critique of Marx and a Marxist critique of Foucault. It will be argued that they can ultimately be reconciled by employing the notion of abstraction found in Marx’s writings and re-inscribing it within Althusser’s more rigorous materialist approach to social formations. Both chapters will make use of extensive quotations where appropriate. Finally the paper will sketch out the possible directions this perspective opens up. In sum, the task ahead of this paper is to preserve what is valuable in Marx and Foucault without lapsing into reductionism or contingency, aiming to sketch out a theoretical framework that can aid the fight for socialism.

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



End Notes for Introduction

1 Perry Anderson. 1976. Considerations on Western Marxism. London: New Left Books

2 A Marxism characterised by a literal reading of Marx’s famous base/superstructure metaphor whereby the determinative efficacy of the superstructure is effectively denied.

3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

4 'At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production or ... with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins the era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of a natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.' Karl Marx (1859) 1970, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 21

5 An historical account of the 2nd International, see James Joll. 1974. The Second International. London: Routledge. For a discussion of its Marxism: John Rees. 1998. The Algebra of Revolution. London: Routledge.

6 The bulk of whom went on to form the 3rd, or Communist International in 1919. See Julius Braunthal. 1967. History of the International: 1914-1943. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

7 See Mike Haynes. 1997. ‘Was There a Parliamentary Alternative in Russia in 1917?’ in International Socialism 76 (Autumn): 3-66.

8 Socialist opposition to the Bolshevik revolution was often justified on this basis. See Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate. 1994. Introducing Lenin. London: Icon.

9 Anna-Marie Smith. 1998. Laclau and Mouffe: The Radical Democratic Imaginary. London: Routledge.

10 A ‘fashionable’ perception of the vanguard party that is historically inaccurate. See John Molyneux.1998. ‘How Not to Write About Lenin.’ In Historical Materialism 3 (Winter): 47-63.

11 Ellen Meiksins-Wood. 1986. The Retreat From Class. London: Verso.

12 Ibid. , p.90.

13 Alex Callinicos. 1993. ‘What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Althusser?’ in E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker (eds.). The Althusserian Legacy. London: Verso, p.44.