Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Productivity and Science in Marx: A Response to John Ganz

Let’s talk about science and the productive forces in Marx!

John Ganz provoked everyone a couple weeks back by tweeting, first, that Marx teaches us that “socialism and eventually communism is not supposed to be a more moral system, but such an abundantly more productive system that the moral issues that arise in capitalism no longer exist.” He followed that up with another banger: “people want marx to be the cool humanist political writer who references shakespeare etc. and ignore the cringe 19th century parts where he's like ‘this is actually all science,’ but they are both there,” adding that “taking the deterministic parts [of Marx] seriously is kind of more interesting, even if it creates big problems.” After merrily engaging in the pugilism for a while, he wrote up his argument in essay form on his Substack. 

I love some good Marxology, so I want to evaluate Ganz’s interpretive arguments. But I also want to say something about why these questions of science and productivity are politically important. In fact, I think two of the most important lessons we can take from Marx for contemporary emancipatory politics are embedded in these questions. So kudos to John for putting his finger on both of them – even if I am going to disagree with him about a number of issues. But also, the question of how best to relate to the thought of 19th century socialists like Marx is a motivating one for Ganz, and for me as well. 

I’ll take the issues in the same order they came up: production first, science second.

Let’s establish some common ground first. Marx repeatedly and consistently maintains – and Ganz cites some of these passages in his essay – that the relations of production allow for the development of the forces of production, but that, as these forces of production develop, they come into conflict with the relations that have till then fostered them. At this point, the relations of production become fetters on the forces of production. This fettering continues until a social revolution transforms the relations of production into new relations, which can be forces- developing at this higher stage. Since socialism or communism is the highest stage of human development, and supercedes capitalism, it follows immediately that socialism must, according to Marx, have more developed forces of production than capitalism does. This is Hist-Mat 101. 

The disagreements start as soon as we ask: what the hell does all of that mean? I study and teach Marx professionally and I will be the first to admit that Hist-Mat 101 sounds like a heaping bowl of word salad. Can we say the same things in a way that specifies the forces and relations of production, development, and fettering such that it sounds like anything other than a series of formulae? 

Ganz implies that Hist-Mat 101 means that the sufficiently-developed productive powers of labor cause – that is, are necessary and sufficient conditions for the coming into being of – socialism. That’s how I understood his first missive. If socialism is so much more productive that the moral issues that arise in capitalism don’t come up, it seems that the increase in productive powers is what brings socialism about – otherwise the moral issues about how to distribute scarce goods would still be coming up under socialism. This is also why Ganz later insists that Marx is a determinist about history: the development of the productive powers of humanity follows a causally determinate and causally determining path, and social, political, and moral issues tag along for the ride but do no independent work.

This is a respectable interpretation of Hist-Mat 101, with a long lineage. One of its greatest proponents was the young G.A. Cohen. His 1978 book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, explicitly set out do give to the COMINTERN Marxism Cohen grew up with the most rigorous statement possible. I think it is fair to look to KMTH, therefore, to see the very best version of the argument Ganz is making.

According to Cohen’s version of Hist-Mat, the underlying trajectory of human history is the expansion of the productive power of humanity. Despite all local and temporary setbacks, there is a tendency for the forces of production to grow or develop. Since the productive forces produce use-values, of which there is no common measure, the development of the productive forces must be measured by “the amount of the day which remains after the laboring time necessary to maintain the producers has been subtracted” (Cohen, 2000, p. 61). The core of Hist-Mat, then, is this historical growth of our power to produce surplus time. 

But Hist-Mat is scientific because it is explanatory: the core claim is supposed to explain the form taken by the dominant relations of production or by the economic structure of society. Economic structures that allow or encourage this development in natural power win out over those economic structures that hamper this development. Hence, any socialist economic structure must be better able to produce surplus time than is capitalism. Hence, also, social revolutions can be premature, when the forces of production are not developed enough to support the relations of production introduced by the revolutionaries. In Cohen’s terms, social or economic power is functional for productive power, and takes the form that is compatible with the current level of development of productive power.

Except, that is, when it is not and does not.  

For it is also true that, as Cohen puts it, “the production relations are capable of fettering, that is, restricting the use and development of the productive forces” (2000, p. 41). During any period of time when fettering is occurring, “Dysfunctional relations persist” (p. 161). This dysfunctional state of affairs poses a significant difficulty for the Cohen/Ganz construal of historical materialism. 

During periods of fettering, the relations of production are not explained by their functionality for the forces of production on hand, since they are dysfunctional given those forces. Hence, during periods of fettering the perseverance of the economic structure, if it is to be explained at all, must be explained by something other than the material powers

Cohen thought the US was in a period of fettering in the late-1970s. According to Ganz, Marx thought that “the social organization of capitalism, with its class relations, was holding back or ‘fettering’ productive power” – and presumably this means in the England of the 1860s. That’s a lot of fettering! 

It seem that, according to Hist-Mat 101, fettering has been happening in the capitalist core for 150 years. The productive powers we have are incompatible with the economic structure we have, and call for a new economic structure, and yet the old economic structure persists. The moral issues that arise in capitalism shouldn’t be coming up now, and shouldn’t have been coming up for a while. The functional explanation of social power by natural power – the fundamental theorem of Hist-Mat 101’s social physics – is unable to explain anything that has happened in the capitalist core since Hist-Mat 101 was formulated. That seems bad.

So maybe Marx and Cohen were both wrong, and fettering isn’t happening yet. Maybe the forces of production still have to develop for a while under capitalism before they will be sufficiently mighty to burst the constraints of the capitalist relations of production. Maybe?

Yeah, maybe. But the basic problem with the causal reading of Hist-Mat as a reading of what Marx was up to is that it makes politics apparently superfluous, and yet eighty percent of what Marx did in his life and in his writing was engage in politics and encourage the workers’ movement to engage in politics. In other words, if productive-forces causality is the right way to read Marx, then the consequence is not only that Marx was very wrong about the state of development of those productive forces, but also that he was fundamentally confused about his own argument, since he ought to have drawn the lesson that political struggle is epiphenomenal to the progress of the productive powers of labour. 

Rather than taking the development of the forces of production as causal, though, Marx seems to have taken this development as motivational. That is, the growing productive powers of cooperative and large-scale labour motivate the working class to organize themselves and to struggle for socialism, not because these powers make the moral issues that arise from capitalism – the question of how to distribute the needs of life – irrelevant, but because these powers make these questions more and more pressing. Or, to expropriate a phrase from Rosa Luxemburg, the development of the powers of production is indispensable to socialism, not because it renders superfluous the political tasks of socialism, but because it renders these political tasks both necessary and possible. 

The political tasks are necessary because the crises caused and threatened by these massive productive powers are increasingly existential. The political tasks are possible because the workers are increasingly aware of the scope of the problems and are increasingly able to communicate and organize with one another. If Marx was too optimistic about anything, it was not that humanity was on the cusp of an age of superabundance in which we wouldn’t have to fight over scarce resources any more, but that the working class was on the cusp of solving the collective action problems presented by the market economy through concerted, international, and solidaristic action. 

There is another side to Ganz’s claims, though. He also argues that Marx thought socialism (and then communism) would cause a huge increase in productive powers, such that socialism would be “abundantly more productive than capitalism.” This was already implied, of course, in the notion of fettering, but it can also stand independently. Even if Marx did not think the growth of productive powers causes socialism, he might still have thought that socialism would cause such a massive increase in productive powers that everyone’s desires could be met without anyone ever having to weigh the tradeoffs or make hard decisions about whose desires ought to be satisfied. In the parlance of the internet, did Marx believe in fully automated luxury communism? 

Let’s tackle the passage Ganz cites from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” since this is not some explosion of youthful enthusiasm, but the argument of a man who had already written Capital. Marx there writes:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

This is certainly Marx at his most utopian, and he seems to express here a sort of cornucopianism. And yet, what has always stood out to me about this passage is that Marx is postponing the cornucopia to a distant time. What Louis Blanc wanted to institute immediately – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need – Marx is claiming could only become a reality after the division of mental and physical labour is overcome, after labour has become a thoroughly pleasurable activity, and after everyone has become capable of all manner of cooperative scientific work. 

Far from being something that would be unlocked by the socialist revolution, this is a possibility that Marx kicks far down the road in order to emphasize, instead, how much work socialists will have to do to solve the tricky distributional questions that will arise immediately from a socialist economy. Fully automated luxury communism, if it is a possibility at all, is not an immediate possibility, suppressed by the social organization of capitalism. 

On the question of science, finally, Ganz argues that “Marx viewed his own thought on analogy to or even an extension of the natural sciences.” These are two very different things, though. Ganz is on stronger ground when he emphasizes the analogies Marx draws between his own thought and the natural sciences. There is simply no doubting that. Like Hist-Mat 101, though, there is a question of what those analogies mean. Do they imply that Marx’s approach to history is positivistic or deterministic? 

Short answer: no. 

There’s a lot of confusion about these issues generally. Marxists and anti-Marxists alike have claimed that Marx’s perspective, according to which “ the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history,” implies the elimination of free will or individual agency. I think it does not. As I wrote in in my book on Capital, Marx’s Inferno:

Marx does not argue that economic relations manipulate individuals like puppets, but that economic relations dominate their decision making. Commodity producers in a commercial society face competitive pressures from other producers. These competitive pressures predictably incentivize certain courses of actions. Moreover, competition replaces producers who are insufficiently susceptible to those incentives with producers more susceptible to them. Under these conditions, producers – regardless of their personal idiosyncrasies or perfect-world preferences – will tend to act on market incentives, and to be price sensitive in their decision making. Their agency remains intact. They continue to make decisions based on their beliefs and desires, and to have all the characteristics attributed to persons by the standard accounts of agency. But they are not, for all that, fit to be held responsible for their actions in view of the market. They are not forced to act as they do, but they are subject to a kind of hazard that rules out discursive deliberation except within arbitrarily narrow parameters. (p. 96)

The question of determinism is whether prior causes compel human action, or whether, on the contrary, humans are able to choose from among courses of action. Denying determinism does not require denying the causal order or the explicability of human action; rather, it requires only the denial that causation implies compulsion. The issue is complicated in Marx because – like many of his major influences, such as Adam Smith and Hegel – his social theory is centrally an exploration of the unintended outcomes of intentional action, or the various ways in which the action of human beings is transmuted, by macro-social processes of aggregation, into scenarios in which it doesn’t seem to matter what any individual does. Smith and Hegel tended to focus on the positive outcomes of these scenarios – this is Smith’s invisible hand and Hegel’s cunning of reason. Marx was more interested in the negative outcomes – the negative externalities of economies centered on a market in labour-power. 

Neither of these perspectives imply determinism, however. And neither does Marx’s faith in the inevitably of socialism. As G.A. Cohen put it, Marx believed socialism was inevitable, not no matter what people did, but precisely because the proletariat had good reasons to bring it about and would, being rationally concerned with their well-being and the well-being of future generations, figure out how to bing it about. Human agency is what makes socialism inevitable, and so the inevitability of socialism cannot deny human agency. 

The question of positivism is a bit different. Positivism in the social sciences is the doctrine a) that the methods and modes of inquiry appropriate to the natural sciences are also appropriate to the social sciences, b) that the goal of all science is causal explanation and prediction, and c) that there is a fundamental distinction between science and everyday cognition or “common sense.” All of these elements of positivism can be given more or less strict constructions – so you might think that only experimental methods can arrive at scientific knowledge, or you might think that a wide range of empirical methodologies are adequate to the task. 

Marx certainly adheres to the third element of the positivist program: he constantly reiterates that, if simple observation of the apparent surface of the world were adequate for knowledge, no science would be possible. Science always penetrates the appearances of things in order to reveal the true order, which both differs from and explains how things appear. This is true of astronomy and it is true of political economy. 

In a sense, Marx also adheres to the second element of the positivist program: explaining and predicting the course of events is certainly Marx’s interest. However, this is complicated by what I said above. Marx thinks human beings act in more-or-less predictable ways, but this is predicated on them seeing and understanding their rational interests in a certain way, which cannot be taken for granted. The intelligent political action of a few can change how a huge multitude see their interests, and scientific works can do the same. Since Marx’s aim in writing and publishing Capital was to have just such an effect as this – to change how the working class movement saw its situation and ints interests – there is a fundamental tension between Marx’s project and positivism. 

But it is regarding to the first element of the positivist program that Marx most obviously diverges: he denes that the same methods and modes of inquiry are appropriate to scientific inquiry into the natural and the social world. One of his most famous invocations of science indicates this quite clearly. In the preface to the first edition of Capital, Marx writes, by way of a caution to the reader: 

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.

The lines I have emphasized indicate why it is misleading to assimilate Marx’s project to positivism. The methods he advocates and uses are essentially and necessarily different from the methods of the natural sciences. Experimentation and the isolation and observation of empirically identifiable objects and events are, according to Marx, inappropriate to the task of scientifically understanding the laws of motion of capitalist production. 

For all of these reasons, I think that Ganz is incorrect – or only superficially and partially correct – in his treatment of Marx. Marx was not a determinist about history, nor was he a productive forces determinist about socialism. He was not a positivist. 

Nonetheless, I think Ganz is exactly right that Marx’s emphasis on scientific inquiry, his denigration of the effectiveness of moral transformation, and his hard-nosed insistance that socialism has material prerequisites do indeed mark out “what is so radical, strange and distinctive about Marx as a thinker, what it is that makes him still fun to read and compelling in the 21st century.” I think he is right that there is a real resistance and even embarrassment among many on the Left, including on the socialist and communist Left, about these aspects of Marx’s work. 

However, I think this resistance and embarrassment stem, at least in part, from the very conflations – of science with positivism, explanation with determinism, and the material prerequisites of socialism with accelerationist faith in the autonomy of productivity – of which Ganz’s provocation is guilty. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

On “Doing better in arguments about sex, gender, and trans rights”


This is a response to the essay published on Medium yesterday by Sophie AllenJane Clare JonesHolly Lawford-SmithMary LengRebecca Reilly-Cooper, and Kathleen Stock.

I probably shouldn’t do this, but… The authors claim that they want to have a good faith conversation. And a number of people who I know, or know of, and who I respect or take seriously are linking to this and taking that claim at face value. For the sake of those people, and other people of good faith who don’t know what to make of the very loud and very sharp arguments about trans rights, I think it might be worth saying something.

I am not a woman. I am not trans. I am a feminist – my earliest conversion experience was reading Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. I love very dearly a little trans girl who I hope grows up in a world where she is safe and free, or at least has a righteous and fierce community of people fighting at her side for safety and freedom. 

My response follows the authors’ essay point for point, for the most part, but it gets away from me a bit at the end. Anyway, I hope this is helpful for someone besides me.

Section one: fallacious arguments
1. ‘Your position has been historically associated with far right-wing thought, and hence fails’.
The authors write: “Associating our intellectual position with a far right-wing one, because some far right-wing thinkers would agree with us in some of our conclusions, and insinuating that our position is all the worse because of it, is an ad hominem. Ad hominems are widely recognised as inappropriate in philosophy.”

Political arguments are different from purely philosophical arguments. The fact that one group of political advocates makes the same, or similar, arguments as another – politically dangerous and loathsome – group is not irrelevant to the political assessment of those arguments. It is true that “the fact that person shares a conclusion with a far right-wing person could never show, on its own, that the conclusion was false.” However, when people claim “that women, by definition, are adult human females,” and conclude, on this basis, that “no trans woman is correctly categorised as a woman,” this is not like happening to agree with a far right wing person about what day of the week it is.

The “gender critical” position is a reactionary political position – in the sense that it is a “backlash” position, reacting to trans people’s progress towards social and political liberation – which politically aligns with the efforts of the far-right to naturalize social differences and make outcast groups more vulnerable to physical and economic harm. No doubt most, if not all, “gender critical feminists” regard themselves as being on the left, and find it disconcerting at the least to be accused of holding a reactionary position. But this has happened before. When radical feminists, in the ‘80s, made common cause with the Christian Right in the US to attack pornography and the sex trade, they were rightly criticized for taking a reactionary position, a position that hurt women – especially the most vulnerable women – more than it helped. The same goes for the current “gender critical” backlash against trans women: some left feminists are taking a bad position out of a misguided and mistaken belief that, in order to protect cis women from sexual violence, they have to police the bodies and movement of trans women.

2. ‘You are biological essentialists’
According to the authors, to call the “gender critical” view “‘biological essentialism’ is a misnomer. Moreover, it is a misnomer apparently rhetorically designed to draw some of the harsh criticism which appears in progressive circles about biological essentialism, in the true sense, onto the view that women, definitionally, are adult human females.”

Frankly, I don’t understand what this rejoinder is trying to accomplish. If the “gender critical” position is that all and only women are adult human females, and if “female” is supposed to denote a set (or cluster) of biological traits, then why doesn’t it follow that “womanhood” is “biologically produced”? The “gender critical” position is that to be a woman is to be a member of a biological sex category. To call this position “biologically essentialist” is not a “misnomer,” and it is certainly not a “fallacy.” Calling the position biologically essentialist does not mean it is wrong, of course! The critics of the “gender critical” position disagree that “womanhood” is a matter of biology alone, and calling the “gender critical” position biologically essentialist signals this disagreement, but is not yet an argument for the social (co-) determination of  womanhood. The authors call their position “realism about biological sex categories”; the critics call it “biological essentialism.” The authors’ preferred term implies that social constructivism about womanhood is a form of anti-realism. This is no more or less a “fallacy” than calling their realism “essentialist.” These are disagreements, not fallacies!

3. ‘You want to reduce women to their genitalia, or to womb-possession’.
“None of us,” the authors maintain, “hold a view according to which either a woman or a female is defined as such by her current possession of a particular configuration of genitalia, womb, or any other single primary sex characteristic, for that matter. … In the light of this, the correct question should be, not ‘Do we ‘reduce’ women to their genitalia, or wombs?’ but ‘Do we ‘reduce’ women to a cluster of primary sex characteristics?’”

I disagree. The real question is actually this: how do we police women? When and how do we – in our social and political arrangements and institutions – stop people and ask them if they are “really” women or not? The authors are concerned to keep (some) people who claim to be women out of (some) “women only” spaces and institutions. In practice, that means looking in people’s underpants. It means empowering the police, social workers, volunteers, and people on the street to demand to know what is between other people’s legs. That is what the critics of the “gender critical” position are practically concerned about when they say that “gender critical” feminists “reduce women to their genitalia.” They are concerned that, to the extent that the “gender critical” feminists get their way, people who claim to be women will be asked – in order to access social services and facilities – to prove it by displaying their genitals to someone or another.

4. ‘You think there is a “right way” to be, as a woman/ lesbian/ mother’ (etc.).
The authors think that this objection “trades on an ambiguity between two separate senses of the word ‘right’: normatively right versus descriptively right (i.e. descriptively correct). As such, it’s another rhetorical move. It can quickly and unfairly bring to the reader’s mind a metaphor of our gatekeeping for a special club you can come in, but not you!’.”

The “gender critical” feminists object, “To say that we think there is a definition of femaleness or womanhood is not to say that there is a ‘right way’ for females or women to be, in any normative sense.” Ah, but it is to say that there are people who shouldn’t call themselves women, and that the police should be able to check your papers (or your genitals) to see whether or not you are authorized to call yourself a woman. The “gender critical” definition of womanhood is normative in this sense: it is political and enforceable. It is, indeed, gatekeeping, and it does say, precisely, “you can come in, but not you!”

5. ‘You are transphobic’; or ‘You may not be transphobic but your views are’.
The authors want you to know that their views are not motivated by “an attitude of disgust, fear, or revulsion towards trans people because they are trans people,” and that their trans friends agree with them – and not “for self-hating reasons.” I’m happy to accept their report of their own – and their friends’ – introspection. I would ask, in return, that when someone tells them that they are a woman or a girl, the authors would accept this self-report and not call the police to check on the status of their genitalia.

6. ‘You think all or most trans women are violent against cis women’.
“This is a straw man,” the authors claim, “and none of us have ever said this, or think it’s true.” Rather, the authors are worried about what might happen, (1) “in a culture where it becomes increasingly widely known that sex-self-ID (with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate), rather than birth sex, is the determiner of entry/ lack of entry for biological males into woman-only spaces where females undress or sleep, and so are particularly vulnerable.” They are also worried about (2) “those who, we predict, would socially transition opportunistically for sinister motives, if the proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act were to go ahead.”

This is the real nub of the issue, I think.

The authors – and I am willing to believe them on this – are not worried about trans women per se, but about opportunistic and predatory men. They are worried that opportunistic and predatory men will take advantage of a culture in which we believe people when they say they are women, and use that trust to harm and abuse women and children.

When stated this way, I think this concern is reasonable. All social institutions and norms are susceptible to opportunistic abuse, and it is worth our while to think about how any reconfiguration of social institutions and norms might be abused by the unscrupulous.

However, mutatis mutandis, the same scrutiny should be applied to our current social institutions and norms, the ones trans activists and organizers want to change. And this is where, I think, the limits of the “gender critical” position become stark. The authors simply show no awareness of how the current regime of gender policing harms trans and gender creative people, or how gender policing itself exposes women and children – including trans women and children – to predatory violence. And because they do not express any sympathy or understanding for what trans people are going through – the harassment, abuse, mockery, and violence they are trying to protect themselves from – the authors end up giving the impression – against their beliefs and intentions – that trans women are dangerous to cis women.

I accept that the authors do not think all or most trans women are violent towards cis women, but they manifestly do think that trans women are a vector for the endangerment of cis women. The authors think that if we start believing women when they say they are women – if we stop policing self-reported womanhood, stop asking for proof – then cis women will be at greater risk of sexual violence. The women who say “believe me when I say I am a woman” are dangerous to women: that is the “gender critical” position. And the authors have not at all grappled with – or even realized – the fact that this position is reasonably taken to be deeply offensive to trans people, and is a barrier to working with trans people on solving the common problem of how to make people safe and secure and free.

7. ‘No true trans woman is ever violent’ (See also: ‘No detransitioned person was ever really trans’)
I have never seen an example of this argument, so I am not sure what the authors are actually responding to.

8. ‘Women get attacked and aggressed in women-only spaces anyway’.
All people have an interest in being safe from physical and sexual assault. There are ways of making women-only spaces safe that do not rely upon policing people’s genitals. Moreover, an overall assessment of how safe women-only spaces are should include the safety of those excluded by a policing regime as well as those admitted.

9. ‘Why don’t you want to exclude lesbians from women-only spaces too?’
The authors get into trouble here for a couple reasons. First, they claim that “We aren’t arguing for the exclusion of lesbians from women-only spaces, because as far as we know, there is no documented statistical pattern of lesbian violence or aggression towards other females, whereas there is such a documented pattern of male violence.” This implies that there is “documented statistical pattern” of trans women violence or aggression towards other women. There is no such documented pattern, and asserting that there is would cause problems for the authors’ denial, above, that they think all or most trans women are violent against cis women. The authors could reply that statistically elevated risk does not imply that all or most trans women are violent. But it won’t do to justify a categorical regime of gender policing on the basis of a statistical risk – this is why racial profiling schemes are not only evil but also counterproductive. Sam Harris embarrassed himself repeatedly arguing for profiling observant Muslims after 9/11. Profiling doesn’t work.

Second, the authors also claim that “lesbian-free spaces would be impractical as an imposed social norm, since theres no even roughly reliable way of visually identifying lesbians and differentiating them from non-lesbians. In contrast, we do have a rough-and-ready way of visually identifying males in women-only spaces. It isn’t perfect, and will regrettably cause misgendering in some cases; but no such system could be perfect, and we consider something as better than nothing.” This is simply begging the question. The critics of the “gender critical” position are arguing that the harm caused by not believing people when they say they are women is not merely regrettable but horrendous, and that letting people go to the bathroom or changing room where they are most comfortable would be significantly better than what we do now. That is, they are denying that the “something” we have is “better than nothing” – or, rather, they are denying that “nothing” is the relevant alternative.

10. ‘You need to understand why trans women are angry with you’.
I actually cannot bring myself to dignify this set of remarks – which are solipsistic and condescending in equal measure – with a response. Sorry.

11. ‘You are making violence to trans people more likely by your writing’.
12. ‘Trans rights are not like a pie; no-one gets less pie if trans people have rights’.
These points go together. The authors claim to “recognise two sets of rights and interests, those of trans women and women,” and to be “determined to foster a public conversation which takes both into account.” They treat these interests as if there were simply a zero-sum trade-off between them, however: “we do think that giving the social and/or legal capacity to male-bodied people to self-identify into woman-only spaces and resources, will take something substantial away from women, given a wider context of misogyny in society. That is precisely our point.” And they show no willingness to trade the interests of cis women for the interests of trans women: “We therefore request that society finds some other, better route to realising trans rights, compatible with realising the rights of women to lives free of harm.” I’m not sure, then, how this is supposed to foster a public conversation.

13. ‘Feminists have already had the discussion without you, and established that trans women are women’
The authors refuse to “defer to” recent feminist scholarship. That is their right. I think the objection, however, is that they do not try to engage with it or to understand what motivates it. More on this below.

Section two: bad analogies
1. ‘In the past, some people used to think black women weren’t real women. These days, some people now think that trans women aren’t real women. But black women are women, and so are trans women’.
2. ‘Excluding trans women from women-only spaces is like excluding black people from whites-only spaces’.
3. ‘Excluding trans women from women-only spaces is like excluding refugees or immigrants from the UK’.
4.‘ Trans women stand to women as adoptive parents stand to parents’.
5. ‘Arguing that you can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian resembles the historical claim that you can’t be both a real woman and a lesbian’.
The arguments presented by the authors here cluster around three sets of claims. First, the authors claim that trans women’s full moral personhood is not denied them – either by society at large or, at least, by the “gender critical” position. Second, the authors deny that the position of trans women is one of special vulnerability (at least vis-à-vis cis women). Third, the authors reassert that theirs is not a normative definition of womanhood, but a purely descriptive definition. I will take these in turn.

(1) Moral personhood: One of the most persistent theoretical complaints I have seen about the “gender critical” position is that it operates with an incredibly simplistic and inadequate notion of oppression. This complaint seems to be substantiated by these sections of this essay. The reader is told that, during the era of New World slavery, black women were denied the status of “womanhood” insofar as “black women weren’t the sort of female white people should be interested in, or care about, or value. That is, it was a move which denied black women full moral personhood in the eyes of white people, and positioned them as undeserving of human rights.” After the end of slavery, “black people were historically subject to segregation because white people denied their full and equal humanity.”

But, the authors assure us, the “gender critical” position is not “that trans women don’t have full moral personhood. We emphatically and repeatedly assert that they do, emphasising their full human rights.” “The question is not whether they are human,” the authors continue, “but whether they are female, and on the basis of being female should be able to access spaces designed to protect the comparatively greater vulnerability of female people.” “No one thinks a man is denied his full and equal humanity merely because women-only spaces exist, and the same reasoning applies to trans women. Not giving people everything that they desire is not a denial of their humanity.”

Wow. I don’t think the authors have thought through what having your full and equal humanity denied might actually look like. It doesn’t, generally, mean that people deny that you are actually human. That does happen, of course, especially in rhetorical or polemical forms. But slaveowners never doubted for a second that black women were human – otherwise they would not have raped them systematically in order to breed more slaves. Enslaved black women could very well be the daughters and granddaughters of their masters. Their masters knew well enough that they were dealing with human beings. Nonetheless, “black women weren’t the sort of female white people should be interested in, or care about, or value.” Their wants, their desires, their interests didn’t count for anything in white people’s eyes. And nor did they count for anything in the eyes of the law.

“Not giving people everything that they desire is not a denial of their humanity.” True. But not taking people’s desires seriously, discounting what they say they need, dismissing their self-reports about what is most important to them – that is exactly what denying people’s humanity has looked like historically.

(2) Social positioning: The authors have a fall-back position, though:
Second, racial segregation was an exercise of power by a culturally dominant group against a culturally subordinated group. The dominant used their power to keep the subordinate out. Women are not a culturally dominant group; rather, they are a culturally subordinated group. When they act to maintain women-only spaces, we judge that they act to maintain protections that are important in light of their status. At best, trans women are a distinct subordinated group; at worst, trans women are members of the dominant group. At best, exclusion is a lateral move; at worst, it is an ‘upwards’ move. In neither case is it a ‘downwards’ move, and so in neither case is it comparable to racial segregation.

The authors use the same sort of argument to dismiss the analogy between the exclusion of trans women and the exclusion of refugees and migrants. They shouldn’t, because it is a very bad argument. They are, of course, right that racial segregation – and the xenophobic exclusion of migrants – are exercises of power by a dominant group. But notice that some of the people doing the segregating and border-closing are women (members of a subordinate group) and some of the people being segregated and excluded are men (members of a dominant group). Notice, also, that some of the folks in Britain (and the US) most supportive of a harshly exclusive immigration regime are poor and working class folks, and that some of the most virulent and violent opposition to integration in the US came from poor and working class folks. Just because you are a member of a subordinated group doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to lose – or anything you think you might lose if you don’t jealously guard it against newcomers.

Anyone who doesn’t realize this, I submit, hasn’t thought very much about how systems of social power work, or about how they cut across and complicate one another. There is even a bog-standard keyword of recent feminist research that names this incredibly common phenomenon. You know the one.

Anyway, for our authors to deny that trans people – especially trans women, and especially poor trans women and trans women of color – are “desperately vulnerable, and seek to access better life chances,” for them to deny that many trans people are desperate to pass – and go to great lengths to “exaggerate” their femininity or masculinity in order to avoid being “clocked” as trans – in order to avoid street harassment, assault, and worse, for them to deny that having a bathroom or a locker-room where you “belong” and where you are safe from harassment is a valuable “privilege” – well, yeah, that looks pretty “callous.”

(3) Pure description: Finally, the authors are at pains to impress upon us that “Our claim is a descriptive claim about category membership. It isn’t the claim that trans women don’t match some stereotypical sociocultural norms of womanhood.” Hence, also, “our arguing that a person can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian is not done on the basis of our covertly assenting to some norm or stereotype about womanhood. Rather, our argument that a person can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian is grounded in a claim about descriptive conditions upon the category of lesbians.” They’re just describing the world, okay?

In response to the suggestion that “trans women stand to women as adoptive parents stand to parents,” the authors respond that this “begs the question against the gender critical position.”
Both adoptive parents and biological parents have in common that they actually have  or have had  children that they parent. To accept that trans women are to natal women as adoptive parents are to biological parents suggests then that there is something essential to womanhood that they both share. But this is precisely what is at issue between us and our critics, so that the analogy settles nothing on its own.
But I think we haves seen that there may be something “essential to womanhood” that both trans and cis women – even “gender critical” women – do share – and I think the authors have shown us this. It is the conjoint desire to belong to the category “woman” and to escape from the terrible burden of belonging to that name. This is what Marilyn Frye calls “the double bind.” I am not a woman. I am not trans. I am not speaking from any experience of my own. But I have studied and learned from and loved and listened to women and trans people, and I think I see a pattern. When a person calls herself a woman, and wants to be seen as a woman, and yet fears the social punishment that comes with being a woman, and rails against the limits imposed on women – I think that person is a woman. And I think we should both treat her as a woman and not treat her as a woman, because women aren’t treated well, and the only thing worse than being treated as a woman might be being treated as not quite a woman, or a failed woman. And if the authors can’t see that, well… I’m sorry, but I don’t think they are going to contribute to “more fruitful discussion from now on.”

Friday, April 12, 2019

Free time and free people: on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom


According to Martin Hägglund, Marx provides us with “the greatest resources for developing a secular notion of freedom.”[1] This assessment hinges on two claims. First, a “commitment to individual freedom” is “the foundation” of Marx’s work.[2] Second, Marx’s particular development of the idea of freedom is more fecund for the project of caring for the secular world than any other. In other words, freedom was central for Marx, and Marx ought to be central for our understanding of freedom.
I am very much in agreement with both of these headline claims, and, therefore, very sympathetic to Hägglund’s project. But the devil is in the details, and I would like to specify both what freedom meant for Marx and what Marx might mean for our freedom struggles in slightly different terms than Hägglund does. To sum it up in a phrase, I want to prise open a distinction between two interpretations of Marx: Hägglund’s Marx, the democratic socialist, and my Marx, the social republican. I then want to ask whether these two Marxes might be married – or, at least, made to cohabit – without being conflated.
In order to do this, I will pursue three interlocking questions: one Marxological, one conceptual, and one political. (1) Is Marx’s commitment to “the free development of individualities” identical with his commitment to individual freedom?[3] (2) Is the socialist critique of liberalism fully immanent, in the sense that it simply exposes liberalism’s own self-contradictory attachment to forms of social mediation that thwart the liberal commitment to individual freedom? (3) Are the political institutions of socialism best understood as “how we express our priorities and our conception of value”?[4] I think the answer to each of these must be “no,” and that this entails some significant – but friendly – amendments to Hägglund’s democratic socialism.

1
As Hägglund eloquently argues, the free development of individuals – what Marx called “real freedom” – depends upon free time, or “how much time we have to lead our lives.”[5] Free time, as Hägglund also argues, is not idle time, or time free from work, free from commitment, or free from the constraints that come with work and commitment. Rather, free time is that surplus of time in which we can commit ourselves to the work we want to do for its own sake. Attention to this – the human use of free time – is the beating heart of Hägglund’s book.
The only consideration I want to add is this: being subject to a dominating power means that your time is not your own, and that your time is, therefore, not free. This is obviously true of the enslaved, who have no free time – even when they have no work to do – since they are always at the beck and call of the slave holder. But think also of the time- and attention-consuming maneuvers and activities women undertake on a daily basis to avoid sexual assault and harassment in our male-dominated society. Vulnerability to alien power degrades time, eating it up with anxieties and strategies.
I introduce this consideration in order to stave off an easy misunderstanding of Marx’s distinction between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. If we ask how the line between the two realms is drawn, or what might allow people to move it in one way or the other, there is a temptation to focus on three factors: technology, labor exploitation, and ethics. From within this framework, the realm of necessity may be reduced by applying labor-saving technology, by reducing or eliminating the coercive appropriation of other people’s labor, and by refusing to treat “all my activities merely as means.”[6]
What goes missing from this reading of the freedom/necessity distinction is Marx’s denial that the modern ruling class of capitalists enjoys free time, and that this absence of freedom among the ruling class is not due to insufficient technology, the exploitation of the capitalists’ labor, or to an ethical lapse on their part. This class is made up of “rough, half-educated parvenus,”[7] as Marx puts it, not the free persons of antiquity, because capitalists are market-dominated producers, attentive to the shifting whims of supply and demand, and consequently anxious to accumulate lest they go under.[8]
Marx wants to turn this fact to the advantage of the workers’ movement. Labour organizations should fight for shorter working days in order that the workers themselves will have the time and resources to educate and develop themselves politically, but also so as to keep the market pressure on capitalists high. This will, Marx argues, speed both the development of productive technology, as competition on productivity heats up, and the concentration of capital, as less capital-intensive firms go under. This strategy hinges on the capitalists’ domination by the market and consequent lack of free time.
Market domination, therefore, is central to Marx’s understanding of the dynamics and harms of the capitalist mode of production. His arguments in this regard can, and should, be extended. If domination by the market corrodes and destroys free time, this is not because of some special quality of the market but because of the typical quality of domination. I am dominated wherever I am vulnerable to uncontrolled interference from another or others, whether or not they exercise their power of interfering.[9] Being dominated gives agents a special set of reasons to consider in their actions: how will my dominator(s) react to what I am doing? Will they use their power against my projects? How? Regardless of what I want to do, a new sort of uncertainty or anxiety hangs over my plans, intentions, and desires. Therefore, to Hägglund’s argument that “anyone who is committed to being an agent is committed to increasing her realm of freedom and decreasing her realm of necessity,”[10] we can add that she is equally committed to decreasing the domination to which she is subject.
For this reason, it is not enough for Marx to say, as he does in the manuscript for Volume Three, that increasing the realm of freedom requires, as a prerequisite, “socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”[11] It is crucial to add, as he did in Volume One, that “the shape of the social life-process, i.e., of the material production process, only strips off its mystical haze when it becomes the product of freely associated human beings, standing under their conscious, methodical control.[12]
What is really distinctive about Marx’s political project is not his desire for capacious and equitably distributed free time, or his belief that we should exercise conscious, methodical control over the material production process. These are widely held socialist goals. What is distinctive is that he holds free association among producers to be the fundamental precondition for both of these goals. Marx’s free association evokes the free city of republican thought, an association of people, insulated from dominating power, who cooperate in ordering their social and natural world. This is what Marx – following the working-class militants of 1848 – called the social republic, or the republic of labour. It is a social republic because it extends republican government – “the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers”[13] – into the heart of society, the factories and workshops.
None of this contradicts anything in Hägglund’s reconstruction of Marx. But it is absent, and I worry that its absence betrays an apolitical tendency in Hägglund’s democratic socialism. Individual freedom, for Marx, was both the freedom to develop one’s powers and capacities in an open-ended way and the freedom from domination that is the prerequisite for free development. Association free from domination is the political basis of socialism on Marx’s account.
Hence, my answer to the first question: individual freedom from domination ought not be identified with “the free development of individualities,” since it is a prerequisite of this free development.

2
Even with this amendment, my argument supports Hägglund’s contentions that individual freedom is of fundamental importance to Marx, and, futher, that this underscores the proximity between Marxian socialism and liberalism. At several points in This Life, Hägglund portrays this proximity in Hegelian fashion: Marx’s critique of liberalism is an immanent one that takes liberalism’s own principle – individual freedom – and shows how this principle is incompatible with liberalism’s commitment to capitalism. Liberals must choose, then, the true object of their fidelity: freedom, or capitalism?
I am resistant to this move, however. It makes liberals out to be either socialists-who-haven’t-yet-realized-it or bad-faith actors, who talk about freedom, but actually care only about higher rates of profit. I certainly think there are some liberals who fit each of those descriptions, but I also think that there are liberals who understand freedom in a genuinely different way. The disagreement between liberals (of this sort) and socialists (of Hägglund’s sort) is deeper than Hägglund’s presentation lets on, and, therefore, Hägglund’s critique does not, I think, touch these liberals in the way that an immanent critique aspires to.
Hägglund’s text betrays what I think is the real fault-line, in Chapter Six, when he claims that Hayek “reduces freedom to liberty.” By this, Hägglund means that Hayek believes people are free so long as they are not “directly coerced.”[14] This distinction between freedom and liberty, however, appears nowhere else in Hägglund’s book. This passage, therefore, seems to evince a slight anxiety about how Hayek fits in to the immanent critique of liberalism.
This is reinforced by the surrounding argument. Hayek comes up in the course of Hägglund’s argument that “the major liberal thinkers of political economy – Mill, Rawls, Keynes, and Hayek – unwittingly concede that the capitalist measure of wealth distorts the values to which they themselves are committed.” According to Hägglund, the tension (or contradiction) between the capitalist measure of wealth and the values held dear by liberals is resolved, at the level of theory, by the “dream of what Mill called ‘the stationary state.’”[15] The stationary state, according to Hägglund, is the imaginary point at which capitalism and the profit motive will have done the work they need to do – increasing the technological powers of production and the wealth of the world – and can be set aside for the sake of living a more satisfying or fulfilling life, pursuing higher and more noble ends than making more money. Liberals like Mill, Keynes, and Rawls are compelled to posit some such end of capital accumulation, according to Hägglund, for it is only thereby that they can square their actual, substantive values with the existence of a social system that subordinates all values to the pursuit of surplus-value.
Hayek, however, does not dream of a stationary state. And so, when Hägglund come to Hayek, he is forced to change tack, and he introduces the freedom/liberty disjunction in place of a discussion of Hayek’s imaginary resolution of the contradiction. This should make us pause. After all, Hayek is not the only liberal thinker of political economy that refuses the stationary state. Adam Smith saw the stationary state – a country that had attained the “full complement of riches which … its situation … allowed it to acquire” – as a fateful eventuality, in which “both the wages of labour and the profits of stock would probably be very low.” For Ricardo, the stationary state was a threat, something to be avoided by liberalizing the economy and increasing the volume of trade. For Herbert Spencer, social evolution had no upper limit, and liberal policy would ensure continuous growth and progress. For Chicago School neo-liberalism, the growth of value is synonymous with innovation, and a steady-state economy is, therefore, synonymous with a world in which there are no new ideas, or no opportunity to communicate new ideas. Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics last year and currently heads the World Bank, has pushed this line of argument the furthest.
In short, there is a long tradition of liberal thinkers of political economy – a tradition of which Hayek is in many respects representative – that do not evince any of the conflicted feelings about perpetual economic growth that Hägglund finds in Mill, Keynes, and Rawls. Even if the socialist critique of the Mill-Keynes-Rawls line of liberalism is wholly immanent, it does not follow that the socialist critique of the Smith-Spencer-Hayek line will be. I think this is what lies behind Hägglund’s sudden introduction of the freedom/liberty distinction: the intuition that the liberal commitment to individual freedom is not, in the case of Hayek, et al., at odds with the liberal commitment to capitalism.
So what is going on here? If I were to briefly characterize this other liberal tradition, I would say that it’s center of gravity is a categorical opposition to private coercion and violence. It accepts the need for a central state because centralizing coercive force allows for its deployment to be regulated by commonly-acknowledged laws. When the rules for deploying force are simple, universal, and public, and discretionary coercion is minimized, then two things happen. First, people are compelled to enter into voluntary exchanges and contracts in order to pursue their aims. Second, concentrations of power and resources become not only harmless but salutary, since they allow people to do new and creative things even while they do not– since the private use of force is off the table – give the wealthy and powerful the ability to hold sway over the poorer and less powerful. Even monopoly power, on this view, is not a problem – unless it is over basic necessities – since, in an otherwise competitive market environment, monopoly prices spur innovation and the entry of other suppliers into the market. State capture is a consistent concern, however, since that is where the coercive power lies.
This strand of liberalism is not obviously touched by Hägglund’s immanent critique, for Hayek is neither half-hearted in his embrace of the profit motive nor disingenuous in his commitment to individual freedom. So long as profit-seeking behaviour remains within the bounds set by the law, Hayek does not think it is incompatible with any liberal values at all. So long as the state is restricted to promulgating simple, universal rules and providing basic public goods, Hayek thinks that the freedom of each is compatible with a similar freedom for every other.
To be absolutely clear: Marx is critical – highly critical – of this sort of liberalism! But his critical confrontation with it takes place on the grounds of the historical dynamics of the capitalist economy and of political struggles over power, not at the level of its adherence to shared principles. Marx and Hayek disagree about how the world works. This disagreement – and the conditions under which it might be adjudicated – are obscured, I think, by focusing on the supposed contradiction between the value of free time and the capitalist measure of social wealth. And this has consequences for how we think about socialist politics, consequences to which I will now turn.

3
One of the most important contributions of Hägglund’s book is that it demonstrates how central the economy of time is to Marx’s thought. This has been neglected on the Left, and its neglect has given rise, as Hägglund points out, to the theoretically and politically disastrous conflation of overcoming capitalism with overcoming finitude. Adorno is not the only critical theorist to pine for the utopia of absolute plenitude, or to treat scarcity as the necessary and sufficient cause of class domination. As Hägglund rightly argues, this particular species of utopia is not merely unattainable, but “undesirable and incompatible with the fragile possibility of freedom.”[16]
An interesting side-effect of Hägglund’s reading of Marx is that it highlights a heretofore neglected point of contact between Marx’s critique of political economy in the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and the marginal utility theory that was simultaneously revolutionizing bourgeois economics. Marginalism, and the neo-liberal economics that grew out of it, take the scarcity of time to be one of the most fundamental axioms of economic analysis. Perhaps Marx and the marginalists are much closer to one another than anyone has appreciated. (Even I.I. Rubin, who undertook the best examination to date of the relation of Marxism to marginalism, says nothing about time as a category.[17]) I am not in a position to stage this confrontation here, but I do want to explore a political dimension of the question.
The economy of time does not work the same way in all contexts. In particular, it matters whether we are talking about (a) an individual agent prioritizing and pursuing their own projects, (b) a group of agents agreeing to prioritize and pursue a set of common projects, or (c) a number of agents, individual and/or collective, trying to accommodate one another’s various projects without agreeing upon an overarching set of priorities or a common project. Call these, respectively, the situations of (a) individual action, (b) collective action, and (c) coordination. My concern is that Hägglund’s construal of democratic socialism tends to treat the economy as a problem of collective action, and thereby covers over the special problems of coordination. In this way, Hägglund’s democratic socialism reproduces, in inverted form, one of the major shortcomings of neo-liberal theory. Neo-liberals often act as if coordination can and should crowd out all collective action. Socialists should not make the opposite error of thinking that collective action can and should crowd out all coordination.
The basis for my concern is that Hägglund seems to presume a correspondence between the purposes pursued by subsystems in the economy and the purpose of the economy as a whole. So, for example, Hägglund slides from saying that, “under capitalism, the purpose of our economic production is already decided,” to saying that “what matters above all is to generate a ‘growth’ of capital in the economy.”[18] However, the purpose of production at the level of the individual firm is not to generate growth in the economy as a whole, but to secure a profit sufficient to stay in business for another quarter, or to increase market share, or the like. The growth of capital in the economy as a whole is supposed to be a by-product of good institutional design and a free market, not an additive result of everyone pursuing and attaining profit. Individual producers and firms are just as profit-motivated during a depression as they are during a boom, but the depression is marked by a contraction of capital in the economy. Even in a booming economy, many businesses will fail to make a profit, and many people will pursue projects that are not even remotely likely to realize a profit. Macroeconomic policy and performance are not tightly chained to – much less epiphenomenal of – microeconomic motivations.
The imperative of economic growth is strong, I agree, but it is not due to a isomorphism between subsystems and system. Rather, it is a governmental imperative. On the one hand, liberal governance only seems to work under conditions of economic growth. Recession and stagnation bring increased social conflict, and, with them, increasingly authoritarian and conflictual politics. On the other hand, securing the conditions for capital accumulation are necessary in order to prevent capital flight and the collapse of both tax revenues and the ability of the government to finance its operations on the bond market.
As a consequence of seeing the macroeconomy as an expression of the microeconomy, when Hägglund turns to outlining the case for and principles of democratic socialism, he often writes as if democratic socialism will require both an ethical transformation on the part of everyone and a single collective decision-making process about how to structure the economy. Thus, he tells us that “the first principle of democratic socialism is that we measure our wealth – both individual and collective – in terms of socially available free time.”[19] This seems to imply that everyone in a democratic socialist state must be a democratic socialist, or that every individual measure their wealth in terms of socially available free time. Similarly, the second principle of democratic socialism – collective ownership of the means of production – implies, for Hägglund, that “we cannot have private property in the abstract sense that transforms property into a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit.”[20]
Hägglund rightly criticizes Frederic Jameson for excluding “institutions of freedom” from his vision of socialism.[21] But I would challenge Hägglund to amplify this insight. Institutions of freedom do not simply decide upon common purposes, and are not, therefore, exhausted by “collective projects of self-determination.”[22] Institutions of freedom also include processes by which we negotiate not to collectively determine our purposes, and come to terms with one another’s projects without trying to fit them into some over-arching common pursuit.
I believe that Hägglund would agree with this inclusion of institutions of coordination among the institutions of freedom. He is explicitly sensitive to the fact that “our practical identities and their order of priority … must remain at issue and possible to change.”[23] He also insists, rightly, that “the exercise of spiritual freedom must include the possibility of criticizing or rejecting the established forms of participation.”[24] Both of these principles imply that consideration of the public good must be agnostic about certain elements of individual and collective agents’ pursuits.
But what I want to push is (a) that this public agnosticism about how people lead their own lives is going to have to extend to people buying and selling property for profit, and (b) that this – buying and selling property for profit – should not be made into the substance of capitalism. There is every difference in the world between saying that socialism is incompatible with commodities beings the general form of wealth, and with labour-power being a commodity, on the one hand, and saying, on the other, that socialism is incompatible with the existence of commodities, buying and selling, and profit. The former is compatible with the perspective of spiritual freedom Hägglund defends. The latter is not – it is too perfectionistic and moralistic in its conception of what makes capitalism and socialism the systems they are.

4
This brings me, finally, back around to Marx’s relation to liberalism. In the second section of this paper, I emphasized liberalism’s categorical opposition to private coercion. Implicit in the third section was another feature of liberalism: its specification of the public sphere as the sphere in which divergent projects are accommodated. This is just the flip side of the abhorrence of private coercion, since it attempts to remove the power of coercion from any agent or group pursuing any particular project, and to reserve it for the public authorities who are supposed to ensure only that everyone can go about their own business.
Marx’s social republicanism – which I outlined in the first section – relaxes the liberal stricture against non-state actors using coercive force; it is hospitable to the collective efforts of the dominated to coercively oppose their domination. But, for the same reason, it is congenial to the liberal notion that the public authority should not be treated like an enterprise association of the whole population. The state’s claims to manifest the popular will evince, in Marx’s words, a “cult of the people” that occludes the forms of social domination that divide the people against itself.[25]
In this way, Marx’s social republicanism pulls against democratic socialism. We can put it in the form of a dilemma. If the democratic state exists, with its invocations of popular self-determination, then so does capitalism, with its particular form of class domination. If, on the other hand, social life is permeated by democratic decision-making, then the state, with its fictive unity and its attendant imaginary of the sovereign people, withers away. The various local communities, and their federation under higher national and international elected bodies, will differ from one another in what they want to pursue, and these local, national, and international authorities will also come into conflict with the various democratically managed workplaces. There will be no single, unitary forum in which these conflicts will get ironed out, by democratic deliberation, into one plan for the economy.
This, to me, is the blind-spot of all democratic socialism, a blind-spot it shares with much democratic theory. Neither before nor after the construction of socialism is there a single forum in which “we” would take definitive decisions about “the form of our life together” or about “the purpose and practice of our economy.”[26] Institutions of coordination – markets, constitutions, electoral parties, contestatory elections, bargaining fora – will have to knit together the various collective and individual agents. Democracy, from this perspective, is critically important as a check on these institutions of coordination, to keep them from dominating the forms of life that they are supposed to enable, just as it is crucial within the various collective projects. But democracy cannot constitute a single collective agent, “responsible for organizing and legislating the form of our life together.”[27]
At its best, political democracy allows the organized masses to control what political office-holders can or cannot do with their institutional power. This is a wonderful thing, for it frees the organized masses from the political domination of the state, “replacing the haughty masters of the people by always removable servants.”[28] But democracy always remains a way of checking and controlling power; it is never a mode of collective self-legislation or self-expression.


[1] Hägglund, This Life, 212.
[2] Hägglund, 212.
[3] Hägglund, 212.
[4] Hägglund, 314.
[5] Hägglund, 224.
[6] Hägglund, 222.
[7] Marx, Capital, 1:533.
[8] See Hägglund, This Life, 258–59; Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital.
[9] Einspahr, “Structural Domination and Structural Freedom: A Feminist Perspective”; Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized; Pettit, On the People’s Terms; Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance; Wartenberg, The Forms of Power.
[10] Hägglund, This Life, 224–25.
[11] Marx, MEW, 828. Marx: “der vergesellschaftete Mensch, die assoziierten Produzenten, diesen ihren Stoffwechsel mit der Natur rationell regeln, unter ihre gemeinschaftliche Kontrolle bringen, statt von ihm als von einer blinden Macht beherrscht zu werden; ihn mit dem geringsten Kraftaufwand und unter den ihrer menschlichen Natur würdigsten und adäquatesten Bedingungen vollziehn.”
[12] Marx, Capital, 1:173.
[13] Marx, Political Writings, 2010, 3:90.
[14] Hägglund, This Life, 299.
[15] Hägglund, 279.
[16] Hägglund, 325.
[17] See the essays collected in Day and Gaido, Responses to Marx’s Capital.
[18] Hägglund, This Life, 217.
[19] Hägglund, 301.
[20] Hägglund, 305.
[21] Hägglund, 274.
[22] Hägglund, 275.
[23] Hägglund, 313.
[24] Hägglund, 275.
[25] Marx, Political Writings, 2010, 2:56.
[26] Hägglund, This Life, 270–71.
[27] Hägglund, 270.
[28] Marx, Political Writings, 2010, 3:251.