“Totalizing” Marxism?

Some weeks ago, Nick at Speculative Heresy raised some interesting questions about the possible relations (or not) between Marxism and Actor Network Theory: “Across speculative realism, Marxism, non-philosophy and actor-network theory, one of the constant tensions is between a totalizing theory and what we might call an assemblage theory.” Now, this is something I have been trying to grapple with for quite some time.

Thirty years ago, in graduate school, I engaged, as a Deleuzian/Blanchotian, in endless arguments with my Adorno- and Jameson-influenced friends about the possibility and necessity of “totalization” — which they saw as a crucial imperative for Marxist thought, and which I denounced as a pernicious cognitive imperialism. They insisted that any attempt to historicize, or to mobilize critical negativity, necessarily implied an endeavor to totalize — even if this goal of totalization could never actually be reached. I supported assemblages and open systems, and saw the drive to totalize as an attempt to foreclose alternatives; I thought that the affirmation of difference would get us further than critical negativity.

Today, in my grim middle age, it seems to me that the whole debate was irrelevant and beside the point. But it is obviously a debate that is far from dead, since it keeps on coming back, and seems central to contemporary disputes between Zizek/Badiou and Hardt/Negri, as well as between theorists who retain a Marxist orientation and those who adopt the anti-Marxism of Latour and DeLanda.

When I say the debate is pointless, what I really mean is that I have come to occupy both of the supposedly opposing extremes, without seeing any contradiction between them. (I hope this means that I have performed the Whiteheadian operation of producing “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast”). On the one hand, I have become more cheerfully pluralist than ever; I no longer worry about the danger of totalization because I know that it is impossible, that there are always multiple perspectives, multiple links among things, potentialities that cannot possible be exhausted and encompassed by any sort of dialectic. Likewise, critical negativity can never be effective — there are too many things and relations that evade its grasp — so it is not even worth fighting against it. On the other hand, and at the same time, I think that the events of the last several decades have justified and validated Marx’s insights concerning the nature and tendencies of capitalism, to a degree that I couldn’t have imagined thirty years ago, no matter how “Marxist” I considered myself at the time. The accumulation of capital, the extraction of surplus value, the plundering that is equivalent to an ever-expanding “primitive accumulation”, the relentless commodification of all aspects of human life: all these processes are everywhere you look, working systematically — to the extent that I am perpetually dumbfounded, both by discourses that deny the systematicity or problematicness of capitalism, and to those that analyze power and domination and “the State” without taking them into consideration.

I am claiming, therefore, both that capitalism (or, if you prefer, the relentless process of capital accumulation) is indeed systematic, and that this has nothing to do with any arguments about totalization, or base and superstructure, or determination in the last instance, or any of those old categories of “dialectical materialism” and of a “thought of the negative.” Or, to put it in a slightly different way, I am sympathetic to Latour’s insistence that networked social processes cannot be explained in terms of global categories like “capital,” or “the social” – because these categories themselves are what most urgently need to be explained. And the only way to explain these categories is precisely by working through the network, and mapping the many ways in which these categories function, the processes through which they get constructed, and the encounters in the course of which they transform, and are in turn transformed by, the other forces that they come into contact with. But — and this is an extremely crucial “but” — explaining how categories like “capital” and “society” are constructed (and in many cases, auto-constructed) is not the same thing as denying the very validity of these categories – as Latour and his disciples are often wont to do. It is simply disingenuous when (as Nick describes it) ” Latour and the main ANT economist, Michel Callon, argue that capitalism does not exist.” I would add the same for Manuel DeLanda’s anti-Marxism, and for Gibson-Graham’s argument — much discussed in the responses to Nick’s post — that lots of inventive practices already exist, so that we have already somehow reached “the end of capitalism as we know it” (to re-quote my own comments from here). All of these denials that we have to do with anything that could be called “capitalism” seem to me to do violence to the evidences of daily experience

Of course,”capitalism” is a process, or a collection of processes, rather than a thing or an entity. We might substitute for “capitalism” the wordier formulations of capital accumulation, exploitation, “primitive accumulation,” and commodification — since all these are nouns that more clearly indicate process than “capitalism” on its own does. But in any case, the systematicity of these processes is itself something that is largely empirical, rather than somehow a priori. Capitalism is a grouping of mutually-reinforcing processes and relations that insinuate themselves into more and more areas of human existence — and not just “human” existence, if we are thinking, for instance, of ecological effects. A “radical empiricism,” like that of William James, insists upon the experiential actuality — which is to say the reality — of all sorts of relations and processes (in contrast to the way that classical empiricism restricts itself to static entities or isolated sense-impressions). Alternatively, we might think of the way that the line between what is empirically given, and what is necessary a priori, is itself rather blurry and changeable (this is an anti-Kantian argument that nonetheless acknowledges the significance of Kant — it has been made most explicitly in recent years by Paolo Virno via Wittgenstein; but it is also implicitly behind Foucault’s claim for historically variable epistemes or a prioris; it is also consistend with Kojin Karatani’s Kantian Marxism).

Therefore, I agree with Nick’s double claim that “there are some sort of systemic tendencies, but there can be no totalizing system”; but I don’t find it as insuperably difficult as he does “to square the circle and incorporate Marxism, non-philosophy and ANT together.” (I leave aside “non-philosophy” here, because I simply do not have an adequate grasp of Laruelle’s thought). When ANT-oriented people deny the existence of systematic categories, or historically produced and historically variable (relative) a prioris, this is simply because they aren’t empiricist enough — they fail to extend themselves to the point of James’ “radical empiricism,” or of Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism.”

I will let this stand for now, although I regard it as unfinished — there is a lot more to say. In particular, I would like to work out how all this relates to “speculative realism” (and especially to Harman’s brilliant reading of Latour). I think that Harman’s greatest weakness (I am less sure about Latour) has to do with his exclusive focus on entities (objects) rather than on processes, and, in consequence of this, of his underestimation or excessive rigidity in how to understand relations. [I cannot justify this comment at present; it is part of what I am currently trying to work out. Whitehead sees the world as being composed of processes rather than substances; on this basis, he gives an account of “enduring objects” that is irreducible either to Bergsonian total flux, or to Harmanian substance ontology. I think that Whitehead’s understanding of processes and relations is compatible with a sense of the long-term systematicity of something like “capitalism,” in a way that Harman’s and Latour’s formulations are not. But this is all something To Be Continued].

14 thoughts on ““Totalizing” Marxism?”

  1. This is a great post. Although I came to the debate later than you did, I experienced it similarly, though initially from the other side of the fence, my interest in theoretical questions having arisen from exposure to the Frankfurt School in German before I began to read material of that sort in English. When I started yearning to turn the opposition into a contrast, to borrow your formulation from Whitehead, I found myself turning to William James and the pragmatist tradition’s legacy. But I was also drawn to German-language material that was opposed to Frankfurt School orthodoxy, whether obliquely and sympathetically, as Walter Benjamin often was in his work of the 1930s, or explicitly, as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Niklas Luhmann were. That brings me to my question, which is whether you think Luhmann might have something useful to offer on the subject of capitalism’s systemic quality. I’ve been meaning to revisit him, as a counterweight to the Habermas that I’ve been engaged with recently.

  2. “When ANT-oriented people deny the existence of systematic categories, or historically produced and historically variable (relative) a prioris, this is simply because they aren’t empiricist enough — they fail to extend themselves to the point of James’ “radical empiricism,” or of Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism.”

    I think this is a great way to resolve the problem, although I find myself leaning in a separate direction (I hope to put up some thoughts on it within the next month; I just have to develop it a bit more before I feel comfortable with it). But despite leaning in a different direction, I think the sort of solution you propose is an important aspect of resolving the problem. I don’t really have much to add, but I do intend on writing more on this soon!

    And, as an aside, Peter at ANTHEM has a rather brilliant coinage for what this synthesis might be called: ANT-MARKS – “dedicated to studying the burrows that ant-like actors leave behind during their ongoing construction of the global capitalist system” (http://www.anthem-group.net/2009/07/29/from-marxism-to-ant-and-back/)

  3. Just v. quickly, Harman argues that objects are events, I don’t think event and object have the same relation in Whitehead or the later Latour, with objects inhering in events.

  4. Unrelated to this entry: I see you’re also reading Inherent Vice (well, I’m listening to the audiobook… does that count as “reading”?). I hope you’ll write your thoughts on it when you finish.

  5. Isn’t the effect of totalisation some metaphysics of capital where the bad spirit shines through everything as the prime mover and deep causality rather than admitting some systemic properties of our economy which would be somewhat trivial and not more than stating that it follows a few rules and expands on success of their application? Economy has certainly an effect on everything in our society but so has law, science, education, politics, media etc.

  6. It seems to me that totalizing, non-totalizing, and moves against/criticisms of either of the first two all have their political content in specific contexts. I suppose that commits me to a metatheoretical anti-totalizing position by saying there is no a-contextual content to totalizing, non-totalizing, etc philosophical positions. I think that’s still consistent with saying that in some cases totalization doesn’t have to be a problem.

  7. While reading this I couldn’t help remembering the wad of Pinocchio spittle trickling down Antonio Negri’s face for The Porcelain Workshop.

    I don’t think there’s a place where Negri would disagree with you or the people you cite here, I just think he refuses passivity and what you call “grim middle age.”

    Of course, that’s sufficient for him to be completely rejected, as if he were what you have called “incomprehensible.”

  8. Just a quick thought concerning a dialog of some time ago.

    I suspect basic is question of whether we need to explain things. Because some would deny that we do, I feel the assumption needs justification, but this is not the place for me to attempt it.

    It seems that explanation involves a relation of concrete particulars to what lie beyond them. Again, a debatable point, but one I’ll take for granted here.

    Historically there have been various suggestions about just what lies beyond the particular. A theocentric view would posit god as the ultimate source of meaning and explanation. In the 16th century, neo-platonism assumed that the cosmos was coherent, which laid a basis for modern science. Kant saw coherence in terms of rationality; positivism in terms of reified universal laws.

    After WWII, the issue was defined in terms of the question whether or not particulars were parts of a larger system or historicism versus what today would be called meta-theory. I feel this is a false dichotomy, for I believe explanation that extends beyond the particular does not necessarily imply closure or causality (opening a system to contingencies ultimately ends merely a larger closed system).

    I would suggest that the coherence of the world arises from a mutual enabling rather than mutually unequivocal determination (dialectical interactionism). The specifics of this position I can’t explore here, but it involves the notion that the particular structure of a process constrains the probability distribution of another process and actualizes it as new structure (I call this a processual superposition).

    Let me just offer a petty example. I give my granddaughter $5 with no strings attached. She might not spend it or she might spend it as she pleases. If she does spend it, what she purchases has nothing to do with me, but nevertheless her action has a determinant relation with my own. An explanation of her action accounts for its empirical specifics in terms of her intentions, but it is empowered by my action. Explanation thus engages empirical specifics and their relation to another process. Here, if the word totality must be used, it is the totality represented by the relation of particular processes that depend on each other to exist.

    Haines Brown

  9. I quote from S.’s post: “critical negativity can never be effective — there are too many things and relations that evade its grasp — so it is not even worth fighting against it.” I cannot grasp the relation posited between “effective” and “too many.” The connect is forced. Didn’t Deleuze effectively demolish the values of the “slavish” by arguing values are “receptacles to be pierced, statues to be broken open to find out what they contain…”? (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 55)

  10. In the general philosophical sense, I myself would define totalizing thinking as a type of thinking in which the phenomenon under study is analyzed as an internally “collected”, integral, within which all its structural elements and processes essentially determine and constitute each other and, thus, turn out to be functional, causally and genetically related. That is, each element is considered as a constitutive part of a dynamic wholeness (Totalität), as a part of an internally interconnected, coherent organic integrity, unity (organische Integrität, Ganzheit, Einheit). And this, in turn, allows us to consider the studied organic totality (for example, society, history, culture, social group, mode of production, power, etc.) as if from the “perspective” of each of its constitutive elements.

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