Leftism, Theory

Against Economic and Ideological Determinism

The question of the future is an important one, and amongst those who are Marxists, there is a question as to how to understand the role of revolutionary politics and action. There are a rare few that still believe the communist revolution is a historical inevitability, an idea that dominated the First and Second International prior to the two World Wars. The majority, however, believe some work has to be done in order to get the revolution going and that it is not clear it is inevitable. Amidst this camp, however, there is much division and one-sidedness. Whereas the old idea of automatic revolution through capitalism’s total domination of the world and development of the means of production through the increasing of productivity and creation of labor-saving technologies to create the inevitable clash of class interests is now generally dead, the ideas dominant today have turned relentlessly in overreaction against the idea that the material economic base is of importance in revolutionary struggles to change society. Revolutionary consciousness, in the current understanding of the general Left, can be generated at any point of social being and economic development. Thus, material class has no theoretical or practical privileged focus.

The One-Sidedness of Ideological Determinism

No longer are the means of production or relations of production, the so called economic base, considered the important determinant drivers of social evolution, but now it is the cultural superstructure, ideology, where the political focus of Leftist action has found its hope for relevance and point to inject (revolutionary) change into the system. Here we have an intermixing of something that seems on the surface quite like identity politics and idealism in the sense of thinking that the domination of ideas alone are sufficient to drive change. There is a reorientation towards arcane theory, a very heavy emphasis on the concept of oppression, and a leaning towards structural lateral egalitarianism and inclusion of every oppressed identity group. The lines of party politics begin to become highly volatile and explosive regarding any questioning of the usefulness of the seeming over-obsession of the party with attempting a type of entryism/coopting of liberal politics’ ground turf of identity politics. The focus shifts away from class, which is given less and less attention as a structural objective category, and if it remains at all, it is claimed as yet another psychological or structural identity that one can self-identify with which is of no more fundamental importance than one’s sexual identity. These parties and groups will attend to any marginalized group they see as radicalizable on the basis of their social exclusion and attempt to sell the idea of communism as being particularly interested in the marginal struggles of those who are oppressed at the edge of society, selling an ideology of acceptance and a narrative for why these marginal struggles are truly the modern revolutionary base of struggle against the big bad enemy of capitalism.

One cannot help but be unsurprised by the growth of ‘activism’ in the first world that is continuously geared towards narcissistic, dogmatic, and mentally unstable people being not simply brought into the fold, but put front and center as being the central drivers of revolutionary consciousness merely by their status of being rather than any actual capacity to lead or theoretical understanding of situations. It is not that there is an issue with the marginalized and oppressed having a place in the party, nor that their issues receive recognition and theoretical study to understand their roles and problems (or lack of) in capitalist society, but simply that this strategy of cooption of identity politics has resulted in obvious failure in the manner it has been carried out by groups attempting this cooption.

What happens overwhelmingly today is that these minority groups, instead of being coopted for the cause of socialism, end up coopting socialism for their own minority causes. One ends with LGBTQ… ‘xyz’ struggle joining the cause not under the understanding that their problems are symptoms that receive solution in dissolution through revolution, in the removing of the cause of the very problem through the overthrow of the present, but rather under the illusion that socialism is to further the positive aspects of their problem and that it is the furthering of these aspects, “shifting the discourse of acceptability” to the ‘Left’ that will lead to socialism. This cooption of identity struggles coopting socialist struggles is clear in struggles which focus on the advancement of persons based on the identity category rather than the economic class category. It is cheered that a lesbian woman becomes CEO of a big company or that a black man becomes president, yet the rest of material conditions do not change. These persons are no more virtuous, no more kind, no more caring than any other CEO is to their workers. The solidarity of identity is not a true universal solidarity; it is individually insulated to their category group. The advancement of minorities is not and can never be the advancement of the working class as a whole, yet the advancement of the working class could indeed be the advancement of all groups that share this most universal form of life: wage work.

Properly speaking, the issue of identity today is a nonissue that exists precisely because people believe strongly in its reality, yet without this acceptance, the issue would not exist at all, given that there be no actual objective structural basis to the identity issue at hand. Sexuality and gender, the real meat of the LGBTQ struggle, would simply be a nonissue to bother with in a socialist society which abolished the condition of material oppression. Straight and gay, feminine and masculine, would cease to be contentious merely because the very concepts and groupings would have no basis to exist in a socialist social norm. Whether one went around claiming a label of any kind would be empty of any significance both socially and materially. This, of course, is idealizing away that norms do not change overnight and a struggle of ideas must be waged in the public sphere. The struggle of liberation from past cultural baggage in the form of concepts that are parts of old class relations and social groups is one that must be waged in the ideological sphere no less than the economic sphere. Bigotry does not disappear merely because economic relations change, but getting rid of the material bases which generate and maintain such relations of oppression makes the war of ideology much easier to win. If structurally such identity groups were at no disadvantage, one could easily imagine these groups would say “To hell with what people think!”

The One-Sidedness of Economic Determinism

Although accelerationismthe interpretation of Marx’s economic theory that proclaims that the real role of the Left should be to accelerate the developments of capitalism and push the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production to their breaking limitis not a widely held position, it nonetheless brings up the question of how one is to understand and make useful judgments from Marx’s theoretical achievements in Capital. The reason accelerationism is put here under the category of economic determinism is because it is mainly understood by most as a doctrine of automatic revolution via economic development. Capitalism cannot be skipped; we must live through it to its end. Until capitalism matures the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production, it can function indefinitely, and as long as it functions, enough people will internalize and live by its logic even if they don’t believe in it.

On the side of accelerationism, the belief reigns that class consciousness will naturally arise from the pressures put on the working class as the capitalist class races at breakneck speed to revolutionize the technologies of production and push down on the wages of general labor by increasing the amount of workers vying for each job. While it is true that there arises a basic class consciousness amongst people when the economic sphere becomes highly polarized on the divide of the haves and have-nots, this class consciousness is of a vague and theoretically weak kind. What workers in such a state of class consciousness see is merely the appearance of the state of themselves as have-nots, and the rich as the have-alls. This can only lead to the basic form of political practice in unions, and ideas of some sort of reform based change often to do with redistribution due to the theoretical blindness towards the normally invisible aspects of the political economy that require deeply penetrating analysis. In order to move from mere particularly unionized class consciousness towards the necessary universal working class consciousness necessary for the struggle of communism, there is a requirement of a far more penetrating understanding other than “We should be able to haggle our pay with the boss” or “It is unfair to have such large inequality.” The working class must be educated on their relationship to capital and on their mission to free themselves from it not to become a universal working class that is its own boss, but to end the dialectic of the category of class once and for all and in all its forms

Here, however, it must be noted that this insight itself is not a result of the logic of the category of mere working class itself. Due to the reality of differences and advantages, we see that historically and empirically the working class as working class has in it no necessity for a universal goal for itself due to its real fragmentation. Segments of the working class play off each other materially and ideally in their relations, that is to say this much: the working class is divided and in contradiction with itself in its individual sectors. This division is not accidental, but rather inherent to it due to the individualized sectors of workers employed under various capitals. The more differentiated the economy becomes, the less of a universal interest is to be found in the working class. Likewise, the more homogeneous the economy becomes, the greater the interest of the working class expands due to the similar material form of labor and its equally poor wages.

The Relationship of Economic Life and Ideology: Social Reproduction

Considering what has been said so far concerning the vulgar views of economic and ideological determinism as one-sided approaches to Leftist political theory and practice, what then is the proper view? The truth is, both sides are right on different aspects. From the side of the economic determinists, it is an indisputable truth that the actual life in the politico-economic sphere determines our actual practical ideology. Under capitalism, there can be no ethical capitalist that lives up to the bourgeois morality of liberty and equality, for their very existence is predicated on exploitation and being in a position of leveraged power against the worker through the final wall of state coercion. Likewise, as is one of the easiest things to see when you’re an angsty teen who is rebelling against fundamentalist strains of religion, one can see that there is no such thing as an ethical Christian that can live up even to Christian notions of morality under capitalism without disowning modern society as a whole. Regardless of what any of us believe, alone we cannot help but be forced to live by capitalism’s rules. The problem with ideological determinism is that it is simply blatant idealismthe belief that if an idea is not consciously recognized, then the reality of the idea must likewise not be the case, and this is just naïve stupidity. The denial of difference does not erase difference, just as the claim of unity does not make real unity. The denial that the boss is really your boss, that you’re not a worker, but an associate of the business, does not erase the fact that the boss is your boss and you’re his tool for creating value!

From the side of ideological determinism, we have the understanding that a lot of our social norms and expectations are socially created and have no substantial basis in immutable natures or facts. The role of understanding ideological determinism is to exploit cracks in the dominant ideology, to take advantage of its incoherence and impress unto a new generation an understanding of the impossibility of the aim of freedom under the materially unfree system of capitalism. To penetrate the barrier of ideology is a necessary condition of revolution, but this penetration of ideology succeeds only on the conditions that the material base already opens up as the real material contradiction in the gap between ideology’s promise and its material failure to live up to that promise.

To put it succinctly: the relationship of economic base—as relations of production, not forces of production—to ideological superstructure is truly dialectical in that we cannot escape the truth that as we live, we must also believe and as we believe, we also continue to live. Were the economic base to shift, the ideological base necessarily must shift with it and vice versa. However, neither of these categories shift easily nor shift immediately in response to each other. Historically, the material base precedes the ideological superstructure in the way that activity precedes consciousness, but with reflective consciousness that can understand the material base, the determining influence reverses; humanity gains the power to make its own nature. This is the power of science, real knowledge of the world which grants the power to know and determine nature rather than nature determining us. Science here tells us that the cause of revolution is not as simple as just carrying out the right plan, for that plan has a time and a place. Revolution requires the proper material preconditions, not simply a resolute will and set of good ideas.

On the Possibility of Revolution

Capitalism is always in crisis, but that is also just what it thrives on. Contrary to common Marxists’ beliefs, there is no deadly capitalist contradiction save for possibly one: the contradiction of the forces of production and the relations of production. I must stress possibly, for it is logically open that capitalism continues on as a relation of humans insofar as the right of property and its permutations remain. Assuming that away, however, the result of this contradiction’s final consummation is not necessarily communism. A few other class relations may resurface and take over simply by force, or the supremely rich may just live in techno-communism while the rest die out having no purpose to serve in such an advanced economy.

That said, it is questionable whether revolution in the sense that many of us imagine is really going to occur due to the current global nature of the economic system. Socialism, as a mode of production for use and not for exchange, is not possible in one country or in even half the world. All that could be achieved in any country with a socialist aim is a bastardized socialisma market socialism that will inevitably bend and fold to the market as every business does. So far every socialist revolution attempt has gone wrong, but why? It isn’t because the knowledge of the base and superstructure being related has gone unnoticed or that the definition of socialism as “worker control of the means of production” was somehow unknown. More than anything, the problem of socialism has been the problem of isolation and incapacity to overcome the material base with the superstructure. Why did the socialist countries back off from planned economies? Why did the people of the USSR do nothing when it was declared dissolved? Why is it that every communist country undeniably has turned into either an economic failure (e.g. Venezuela, Yugoslavia) or a stagnating and individuality suppressing dictatorship of the Party over the people (e.g. USSR, China, Cuba for a while)?

Somewhere in there, besides the blame of religious levels of stupidity (e.g. Diamat, cults of personality), the blame on the bureaucracybecause the people in the Party came from some weird dimension, not from their respective countries and the ideology of the commonerthe blame on outsider meddling, the blame on opportunist sellouts, or the blame that planned economies just don’t work because it doesn’t create enough iPads that people are born with a desire for. Somewhere in there the idea that socialism just wasn’t possible given the failure of global revolution, and that the modern ideology, though deranged in its conception, strikes something fundamental—the need for genuine freedom—must be acknowledged. No state today can have a revolution and expect to remain untouched by the outside world and its means of economic movements, nor be immune to the interest of the powerful from outside and their assured meddling. No state can come to be in this day which offers less than the promise of freedom which was a mere sham in the state which has been overcome by revolution. Of what good is it to have a revolution where we have less freedom to speak, to live somewhere, or to work and live by what can be realized by our own will and capacities of relating to others as individuals as free producers?

Socialists should be more aware than anyone of the contradiction between the claims of what capitalism promises and what it delivers. Bourgeois ideology says we have freedom, yet we know we do not from the very fact of our aching bones. Armed with a theory of capitalism’s logical root, we know what generates this contradiction between the promise of freedom. The questions remaining are this: To what degree is this theory correct, for it must be correct in order to generate the correct solution, and what can we offer to the masses as a believable solution which can penetrate their doubts and hesitations in a time in which they are not yet desperate enough to just accept it? In answering this we must take both the material life and ideology as determining factors entering into our theoretical and practical approach.

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