Tuesday, June 28, 2011

References to Biology: Some Initial Notes (Marx, Social Movements, and Historical Formations)

      I'm involved in a couple intellectual projects at this point.  The first is an exploration into the history of Social Darwinism, Reform Darwinism, and what historian Ian McKay calls Socialist Darwinism in his analysis, Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People's Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920.  In effect, these overlapping categories reflected the attempts on the part of social scientists to respond to the theoretical break created by Darwin's concept of natural selection.  No substantial thinker of the late 19th century, conservative, liberal, or radical, escaped the influence of this new framework.  Perhaps more significantly, one cannot easily escape the influence of the conservative Social Darwinism through the opposing camps of Reform and Socialist Darwinism.  Noted Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer was not only read by industrialists and their lackeys, but by radicals and Marxists as well.  As Ian McKay notes, radical Wobblies and and socialists were as or more likely to have copies of Spencer and Jack London as Marx.  In effect, social darwinism acted as a kind of hegemonic field for the class struggle of the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States.

     The fact that counter-systemic forces such as the IWW were equally invested in the Social Darwinian imagination shouldn't be surprising to any student of Foucault's.  As he notes, "Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power."  As Foucault indicated in his provocative final lecture of Society Must Be Defended, which implicated a number of radical tendencies in the racist implications of biopolitics, the counter-systemic movements of the turn of the century are caught up in this logic, offering a sort of structural limitation to the anti-racism of these movements.  At the same time, the reference to innovations in the field of biology legitimated a materialist analysis of society, legitimating and grounding an analysis of social structures as complex, overdetermined, and continually in flux.  If the counter-systemic movements are implicated in the former issue, they also gesture towards the latter interpretation, a sort of nightmare that haunts the social darwinist imaginary.

     Is there a way of negotiating this relationship?  If we think about this in the terms of literary criticism, the reference to the biological operates as a sort of reified analogy, transforming a productive epistemological engagement into an engagement that collapses the two discourses together.  This process, of course, starts before Darwin's engagement, with Malthus' theory of population... a notable influence on  the work of Darwin.  As Richard Hofstadter notes in his analysis of Social Darwinism, this analysis is then used to legitimate the structures of domination within late 19th century capitalism, grounding it in the metaphor of the survival of the fittest.  In effect, these modes of analysis ground their transhistorical claims in the biological, stripping it of the disturbing implications of social transformation.  In effect, the belief operates as a sort of fully secularized Calvinism, wealth no longer indicating the grace of god, but the fact that those who control wealth are the fittest for survival.

        This, at last, leads me to my second project, the rereading of Capital, which was the impetus of this project.  Within the Postface to the Second German Edition, Marx quotes a positive critical engagement of the book, an engagement that Marx feels captures the essence of his methodology.  The critic states,

“The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life. Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing: to show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish, as impartially as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting-points. For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. ... If in the history of civilization the conscious element plays a part so subordinate, then it is self-evident that a critical inquiry whose subject-matter is civilization, can, less than anything else, have for its basis any form of, or any result of, consciousness. That is to say, that not the idea, but the material phenomenon alone can serve as its starting-point. Such an inquiry will confine itself to the confrontation and the comparison of a fact, not with ideas, but with another fact. For this inquiry, the one thing of moment is, that both facts be investigated as accurately as possible, and that they actually form, each with respect to the other, different momenta of an evolution; but most important of all is the rigid analysis of the series of successions, of the sequences and concatenations in which the different stages of such an evolution present themselves. But it will be said, the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his opinion every historical period has laws of its own. ... As soon as society has outlived a given period of development, and is passing over from one given stage to another, it begins to be subject also to other laws. In a word, economic life offers us a phenomenon analogous to the history of evolution in other branches of biology. The old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry. A more thorough analysis of phenomena shows that social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals. Nay, one and the same phenomenon falls under quite different laws in consequence of the different structure of those organisms as a whole, of the variations of their individual organs, of the different conditions in which those organs function, &c. Marx, e.g., denies that the law of population is the same at all times and in all places. He asserts, on the contrary, that every stage of development has its own law of population. ... With the varying degree of development of productive power, social conditions and the laws governing them vary too. Whilst Marx sets himself the task of following and explaining from this point of view the economic system established by the sway of capital, he is only formulating, in a strictly scientific manner, the aim that every accurate investigation into economic life must have. The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the disclosing of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development, death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher one. And it is this value that, in point of fact, Marx’s book has.”

       Marx's critic does what so many of the other people involved in the discussion seemingly cannot, that is, to hold onto the dynamic tension of the analogy.  Social and economic life must be studied scientifically, but that analysis cannot slip into the kind of ahistoricism that defined the other forms of scientific study at the time.  Instead, 'stages of development' or economic structures contain the own structural logics, their own 'laws.'  Just as significantly, these structures are never stable.  They contain the contradictions that will gesture towards other potential forms of social structure within them.  Or, to put it in negative terms, they contain the seeds of their downfall.  This dynamic is most fully worked out in Marx's critique of Malthus' theory of population.  Marx argues that the forms of surplus population are a result of the particular forms of exploitation contained in capitalism, rather than a transhistorical law.  Effectively, Marx both rejects the fatalism of the apologists of capital and a set of volunteerist fantasies that posit society could be transformed by some demiurgic act of will.  Transformations in society are always collective and are dependent on the complex social forces in play, which always implicates any observer and analyst.  Lenin, who occasionally fell into his own volunteerist fantasies, captured this best, when he noted to an anarchist acquaintance.  'Your determination to rely on yourselves,' Lenin finally replied, is very important. Every man must rely on himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don't know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself".  Perhaps I could say more, but I'll leave it there for now....

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