Sunday, July 3, 2016

Marxism and America’s Contemporary Public Philosophy

What follows is an edited version of an email I sent to a discussion/reading group on The German Ideology some friends of mine are running.
The division of labour offers us the first example of how … man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic … out of this very contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community. (The German Ideology, 160)
My Argument in Brief

I make three central claims in light of this justly celebrated passage. The exegetical claim argues that the German Ideology is a work essentially concerned with a theory of human emancipation and freedom. The sociological claim argues that despite explicit protestations to the contrary, this Marxian vision of freedom is the central normative aspiration of America’s public philosophy today. And the normative claim argues that this underlying vision of freedom constitutes a deeply insidious dogma and sociological menace in contemporary society.  

My argument, in summary: (1) The German Ideology is about freedom; (2) Most liberal Westerners have come to endorse something very close to the Marxist vision of freedom; and (3) This vision of freedom must be rejected.

My hope is that these three crude, overly-simplistic propositions is to challenge some of the standard-fare conservative instinctive critiques of Marxism. Indeed, an implication of my argument is that many American conservatives unknowingly share this basic Marxist normative vision.

1. The Exegetical Claim: The Division of Labor, Social Construction, and Freedom

Marx’s disquisition on the division of labor may strike contemporary readers as odd. As we Intro Micro alumni know well, the division of labor is the great engine by which our society maximizes widget production. In exploiting comparative advantages within society, specialization leads to efficiency and a productive surplus. Marx disputes none of this, and indeed has rather adulatory things to say about the productive powers of capitalism.

For Marx, however, the division of labor doesn’t merely exploit man’s happy in-born tendency to “truck, barter, and exchange.” It isn’t simply a pareto optimal mechanism by which individuals with different endowments most effectively allocate disparate resources to meet disparate needs. While that may be the original, natural impetus for the division of labor, the consequent ingrained economic practices come to form coherent social roles. The rather brilliant explication of this phenomenon is known somewhat crudely as “historical materialism.” But even rejecting deterministic materialism in its strongest form, a weaker version of the argument provides us with a powerful conceptual model for thinking about how apparently natural economic choices can produce powerful social constructions that define and regulate human life and conduct.

Humans are distinguished from animals “as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence. By producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” This production constitutes “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (150).

The division of labor and specialization are often taken today by the peddlers of market ideology to be tightly associated with societal dynamism. There is truth there on a market-wide level, as these phenomena do produce an efficient societal response to new societal demands. But on the individual level, Marx argues, these phenomena produce intense social ossification and stagnation. The new economic roles become unchallengeable social constructs. There is no abstract “man,” Marx is quick to remind us. There are only historically contingent particular men: German proletariat pin-makers, French, elite, industrialists, etc. The economic roles come to define not only what men do, but what men are.

(This reminds me of a rather clichéd European criticism of American culture. Europeans are quick to complain that the very first question an American asks is “what do you do?” This tendency, the Europeans tell us, reveals the American impulse to define the individual with his line of work, as if knowing someone’s profession tells us all we need to know about him. Of course, the reason the Europeans don’t ask this question is that they already know everything about a given individual’s class and attendant social status long before the exchange of pleasantries.)

To summarize so far, the division of labor arises from basic human needs and the sociological fact of diverse endowments and abilities across the population. But this natural basis gives rise to an ossified, socially constructed economic role imposed upon individuals. We don’t have “men who hunt,” but “hunters.” “Men who hunt” tells us only a singular interest some particular men have. “Hunters” tells us the fundamental sort of people these men are.

This is one (there are several philosophically important others) of the senses in which Marx uses the term “alienation” or “estrangement.” The social roles tightly produced by the material division of labor give men a set script of life. They instruct men how to act, and they instruct society at large how to understand, evaluate, and judge who these men are. This is a process of alienation in that it makes one’s social role alien from the self. The unchosen social understanding of how “persons of type X” live, becomes an externally imposed boundary that coercively shapes human life and action.

Following Jerry Cohen, we might use the language of Aristotelian form and matter to better understand the argument. The problem with the division of labor and the construction of discrete economic roles is that it imposes an unwanted social construction (form) on the person (matter). Freedom will not necessarily be “formless” in the sense of lacking structure, but will arise when form is not imposed on matter, but arises naturally from the matter itself. The problem of alienation in capitalist society is that for the proletarians, “the condition of their existence, labor, and with it all the conditions of existence governing modern society, have become something accidental, something over which they, as separate individuals, have no control” (199-200).

This most fundamental aspect of self-definition—one’s role in society—is forced on individuals unfreely. Men grow alienated from their role in society and from the economic work that sustains that role, and can become free only when the individual’s creative powers and autonomy are fully recognized, and the self is liberated from the constricting power of socially constructed role differentiation.

There are a couple difficulties with the argument that I will touch on later. But one brief point is that the form-matter language may be somewhat unhelpful. For on the Marxist view, it’s difficult to believe there exists any such thing as “brute matter.” Matter is always defined by and indeed produced by a kind of form derived from features of material life. This is an important objection to which I will return later briefly, but will not adequately address.

2. The Sociological Claim: We Are All Marxists Now

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” – the American sovereign Supreme Court

“As you hear from these stories, this is a liberation … You want to be a photographer or a writer or a musician, whatever—an artist, you want to be self-employed, if you want to start a business, you want to change jobs, you no longer are prohibited from doing that because you can’t have access to health care, especially because you do not want to put your family at risk” – Nancy Pelosi on Obamacare

“We don’t have classes in America — I don’t even like the term ‘middle class.’ People are lower income or middle income, and the dynamism of this country is that you can rise, and sometimes fall, but you are not stuck in classes” – Rick Santorum

If there is one ideological conviction shared across the political spectrum in our contemporary public philosophy, it is that America should not be a class-based society. There are deep disagreements as to whether America actually is or has ever been a classless society, but it is clear that this country is dedicated to the regulative ideal of a social and economic order in which men are not defined by their position at birth or their economic status of the moment. It is easy to see how this creedal hostility to any kind of settled social order can lead to the more expansive conception of freedom as the right to define oneself and to be defined as one pleases. There are important countervailing features of the American public philosophy that have historically blocked this drift (perhaps most notably the distinctively American or possibly Protestant value of work over leisure), but there is a common tendency to read the American project as essentially antagonistic to the kind of settled social construction Marx identifies as a source of alienation and unfreedom.

Implicit in this conviction lies a familiar pattern of thought: there exists a true self, burdened by the constraints of externally imposed norms and social expectations. Freedom arises when the self is empowered to freely determine which norms to internalize, and which to reject. When this is accomplished, there will be no alienation between the individual and the role he plays in social life. Freedom is not simply the lifting of external formal constraints on action, but the autonomous choosing what sort of life one wishes to lead.

It is true that many in contemporary American society insist they aren’t quite as materialistic as Marx is. They are less convinced that the market’s division of labor is responsible for the formation of such constricting economic roles and social definitions. Indeed, as I have hinted at above, it is difficult to see how a dedicated materialist can actually believe in the existence of an independent self if the self is so defined and produced by material forces themselves. But even then if their view is not traditionally Marxist, it may be aptly described as culturally Marxist. Socially limiting differentiation is not the product of the division of labor and economic life, but comes rather from the assemblage of cultural forces and power dynamics within a hierarchical society. Setting aside the question of their provenance, these social roles coercively define individuals without respecting their sacred autonomy of self. This impulse can explain also our contemporary celebration of the therapeutic self, clinically diagnosing social malignancy and untoward ideology not as the responsibility of the individual, but as instead a pathology derived from suboptimal social conditions. Resources must be employed in, so to speak, forcing the self to be free from these counterproductive social forces.

While many American conservatives find this more typically leftwing critique of social constructions excessive, the basic denunciation of social ossification remains a central part of any mainstream conservative agenda. Likewise, the conservative rebuke of “identity politics” often comes from a visceral distaste for our collective tendency to define individuals on the basis of any even partially socially constructed category. Both the political right and left in this country remain committed to the ideology of “you are all individuals!” The external imposition of norms, roles, and expectations is always a cause of coercion and social control.

(Just as an aside, it should go without saying that on my interpretation the Marxist vision of freedom is not the collectivist menace it is often taken to be, but rather flows directly from a set of essentially individualistic convictions. That, anyway, is how I interpret the famous proposition that "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

3. The Normative Claim: Not Whether Hierarchy, Just What Hierarchy

My preceding comments are certainly excessively simplistic in their claim that American political liberalism (lower-case l) shares a great intellectual affinity for the Marxist vision of freedom as developed in The German Ideology. The point here, after all, is to be provocative, not academically careful, rigorous, and dull. Regardless, it remains clear to me that many contemporary attitudes toward freedom operate according to a common paradigm: there is a free individual self that must be emancipated from the oppressive external structures that limit its creativity and autonomy.

The view can be broken down into two parts: (1) The division of labor and its attendant sociological role differentiation fundamentally structure and shape human life; and (2) This fact of externally-imposed power and social construction produces alienation and unfreedom.

We ought to accept the first proposition and reject the second. I am largely sympathetic to the Marxist sociological explanation of how economic roles come to embody much deeper social norms and scripts that define human life. There is a curious parallel between Marx’s critique of the concept “abstract man” and Joseph de Maistre’s famous insistence that “there is no such thing in the world as Man…. I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc. … But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.”

To imagine man as anything but the product of historically contingent material forces which through entrenched social power have defined his culture and role in life is to engage in pure abstraction. There may well be some immutable features of human nature, but these features do not allow us to develop any kind of coherent conception of man qua man. To paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, man without culture is a creature of whom we know absolutely nothing. 

But the point is not simply that these economic roles are inescapable, but that, fundamentally, they are good. The evolved socially constructed norms and expectations of human life internal to particular social roles provide us with a wealth of wisdom. In pointing erstwhile anarchic souls toward stores of shared meaning and value, they teach us how to live well and happily.

Our object then should not be the levelling of social roles and the political/economic hierarchies which produce them. It should rather be to make just the hierarchies that do exist, and to allow individuals to flourish in a manner informed by externally imposed constraints and scripts of life. There is no “true self” waiting to break free. Indeed, I remain thoroughly flummoxed by Marx’s equivocation on the matter. The matter-form language Cohen employs cannot fit with the Marxian view of matter as the strict product of form. How can Marx identify freedom with a condition in which matter sets its own form, while holding that matter is always strictly produced by form? The kind of social transformation needed to bring about that deep metaphysical transformation seems rather implausible.

Fortunately, however, there remains a resolution that incorporates much of the Marxist insight. We ought to think of the relationship between individual men and their social roles not as a dualist form-matter relationship, nor as a redundancy in which matter derives strictly from form, but as a hylomorphic relation by which it form gives meaning to matter, and matter in turn gives meaning to form. On such a view, the externally imposed restraints inherent in any economic role differentiation are a source not of unfreedom, but of meaning and happiness. These stringent social roles become, in other words, “the wise constraints that make men free.”

All citations are drawn from the translation of the “German Ideology” found in Tucker ed. The Marx-Engels Reader.

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