Monday, July 17, 2023

How dumb is Steven Smith?

How dumb is Steven Smith? 

Smith teaches political theory at Yale. He is a Straussian. Strauss’s apology for his mode of teaching political philosophy is that philosophy is the only thing that can innoculate ambitious and capable young men of leisure – Straussians call them gentlemen – against the desire for political power. In the context of Strauss’s own early sympathies for fascism and his lifelong belief in a muscular, more or less theocratic, and very nationalist Israel, this apology was necessary and perhaps inadequate. It was also, I think, sincerely meant. Philosophy, or fearless rational inquiry and skepticism of all popular dogmas, religious faiths, and civic cults, is anathema to politics. But politics always tends towards the narrow, the sectarian, the idiotic, and the cruel, and politics will stamp out philosophy if it has a chance. So Strauss thought that philosophical education, approached in a suitably circumspect and flirtatious way, could temper the most dangerous young men, give them a taste of more cosmopolitan and more personal pleasures, and keep them liberal (in the older, aristocratic sense of the term). 

Costin Alamariu – better known to the world as Bronze Age Pervert – wrote a dissertation at Yale, supervised by Smith, which argued that Plato’s secret teaching is that Callicles is right, that philosophy and power are identical, and that natural right is the complete domination of the weak by the strong. This is, of course, the opposite of Strauss’s apology. Alamariu is himself one of the ambitious and capable young men of leisure that Strauss thought so necessary and so dangerous to political life. Smith was, apparently, completely overawed by his student. He disagrees with Alamariu’s argument, he says. He also says, though, that “The dissertation was, in many ways, a brilliant sort of tour de force.” Rather than taking an ambitious little rich kid and giving him an innocuous hobby and a high-minded disdain for political power, Smith has, apparently, flattered and pampered a little fascist into thinking he is the philosophical prophet of warrior kings and the extermination of the bugmen. 

In the process, Smith has made American Straussianism look not so much evil – remember Shadia Drury’s dark fantasies of Straussians as the puppetmasters of the Bush White House? – as pathetic and stupid. And East Coast Straussians, even! The dumb subservience to Republican electoral politics and the cultural Right was supposed to be confined the the West Coast (Californians are classically airheads). The East Coast was for the cynical Brahmins of the clan – sophisticated, gay, and Europe-oriented. But here is Yale out-Claremonting Claremont, producing a highly-literate guttersnipe intent on rallying the basement dwellers of 4chan. 

So, congratulations to Steven Smith. He has managed to eviscerate Strauss’s apology for Straussianism, egg on an aspiring Nazi, and make the West Coast Straussians look like the smart, morally sane ones. That’s pretty dumb!

Saturday, September 24, 2022

On the new class fundamentalism

These are my comments from a roundtable organized by Igor Shoikhedbrod at APSA 2022. They are a first, rough attempt to think through issues of class in social theory and in socialist politics. They are both rather tentative and rather basic, but I hope they are also somewhat helpful.


I’m trying to figure out the new “class is fundamental” discourse. In some of its aspects, it is not so new. Adolph Reed has been pushing the same line for 35 years. Aging Trotskyists are not saying anything they haven’t been saying forever. But older tendencies have gained a new inflection by interaction with elements that are much more genuinely recent. The post-Bernie anti-liberalism of certain parts of DSA, the anti-PMC line being pushed by the romantic workerists who publish in Compact, etc., seem very conjunctural.

Within this context, what does it mean to insist that class is fundamental? 

I find this a hard question to answer, in part because it is hard to isolate the theoretical account offered by these authors from the critical attacks on others that carry the message. The critical attacks often seem to boil down to an imperative to say the word “class” more, and the words “race” and “gender” less. Nonetheless, the critique seems to be motivated by the sense that “class” cuts the social world at its joints. There is a conviction that organizing around racial, gendered, or other identities, and around injustices of status and standing, are distractions from (a) what is *really* going on, and (b) what might actually *work* politically.

"What is really going on": The fundamental social processes that drive, undergird, and explain the conflicts about status and standing and identity are the class processes of capitalism in its current neoliberal form.

"What might work politically": Naming and appealing to people’s material interests – which are their class interests – is both more motivating and more inclusive than naming and appealing to people’s status, standing, and identity, which are particularistic and divisive, rather than universalistic and unifying.

I understand the appeal of this, I think. The individual claims out of which these intuitions are constructed are themselves compelling. The class processes of capitalism are fundamental for understanding the world. Appealing to common and material interests, and building universalistic policy programs, are the best shot we have of moving things in a better direction. And yet, the class fundamentalist position as whole doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. When I think about how and in what sense each of the elements is true, then it seems impossible to combine them in the way that the new class fundamentalism does, and the whole things seems to fall apart. 

I want to look at the two aspects of the position in turn, and to point out where I keep getting tripped up.

In what sense, first, are class processes and conflicts the fundamental social processes that drive or explain other conflicts? 

Class is fundamental, in this sense, because production is fundamental. Class relations organize production, and so, since production is fundamental to the existence of human society, solving the class relation problem is a constraint on everything else that goes on in society. 

Now, you could say the same thing about reproduction. Since reproduction is also fundamental to the existence of human society, it might seem that relations of reproduction – sex and gender – are equally primodial and equally basic to everything else going on in society. But here there is an illuminating contrast. It turns out that human beings can reproduce the species in in a wildly divergent set of social relations. Reproduction does not require any particular social relations to be successful. That is, in the case of reproduction, stable functionality radically underdetermines social form. As long as there is enough food, humans find ways of reproducing the species, and the ways they find to do so are flexible and varied to an incredible degree. 

Not so for production. Production at a certain level – for a given population, at a given level of social wealth – binds us socially to a much greater extent. Hence, production relations are much stickier. We cannot produce food and technology for a world of 8 billion people, who are used to and reliant upon modern life, in just any old way. We are, in this sense, locked in – for now – to certain relations of production, and this means to certain class relations. 

Class, in this sense, names the relations of domination and exploitation that are productively necessary for a given society

The point of base-superstructure materialism is to underscore this fact, that class relations are themselves a “social technology” of production, and that more productive class relations are more powerful class relations, which tend to win out in competition with other, less productive class relations. (The mechanism of this winning out can vary. It might be that more productive class relations outspread less productive, or that they developmentally outstrip them, or that they lead to military overmatching, or…)

However, there are a couple wrinkles. First, a tendency is just a tendency, and will be more notable and stable at a large scale and over a long time than it is locally and at any given point. Historical materialism is not a species of determinism. Second, the more productive the economy, the greater the surplus, and the greater the inequality in how this surplus is spread around, the greater the “slippage” between socially necessary class relations at the level of the whole and the relations of production that obtain locally in any given workplace or jurisdiction or line of production. That is, the more productively developed an economy, the less likely its “competitive edge” is to be critically present in some one site or line of production.

In this situation – and it is, I think, our situation, to a greater extent than it has ever been any other society’s situation – class relations remain fundamental, but they are progressively distinct (without being independent) from work relations. Work relations – relations of domination and exploitation at the site of production – are labor-management relations, not proletarian-capital relations. Proletarian-capital relations obtain in an abstract but determining way at the level of society, which is mediated in its essential productive processes by the labor market. Work relations obtain in an empirically perceptible but overdetermined way at the level of everyday life, which is mediated in its contingent productive processes by all sorts of things.

This analysis – which is based on Marx’s distinction between abstract and concrete labor – highlights a constitutive obscurity in the new class fundamentalism's political project.

The injunction to focus on class in political practice is itself interestingly out of step with the injunction to trace things back to the political economy of capitalism. After all, “class” does not name a reality proper to capitalism, but a constitutive element of almost all human societies to date. The corollary of tracing the fundamental dynamics of capitalism would be an emphasis not on class but on the proletariat. But naming the proletariat would emphasize what so much of the new class discourse obscures, that the working class as the producers of things is not equivalent to the working class as the class of wage-workers, and neither is equivalent to the proletariat, the class of people dependent upon wages for life, whether they are working or not. 

I think this conflation of capitalist class relations with work relations is an understandable but regrettable feature of the new fundamentalism. 

Understandable, because it’s not as if capitalist class relations are independent of capitalist work relations, and work relations are much more empirically tractable and politically salient in an obvious way. 

Regrettable, though, because it leads this current emphasis on class to fall into a false opposition between “class-based” politics and other forms of political organizing. This is because, by shifting between features of the structural class relation basic to capitalism (between capitalist and proletarian) and features of one or another work relation, the new class fundamentalism makes its political task too easy. Class politics has the immediacy of work relations, but the universality of class relations. Class politics – like workplace organizing – appeals to material interests, but it also – unlike workplace organizing – has a national and even international constituency. 

There’s the old saying in labor circles that “the boss is the best organizer.” I think the new class fundamentalism wants this to be true, not only at the level of the shop floor, but at the level of society at large. And there are points in time when that actually seems plausible. In the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, in Europe and North America especially, it was reasonable to think that capital organized labor at scale. The emptying out of the countryside, the massive amalgamation of the industrial working class in factory, mine, city, and district – all of this encouraged Marxists and other socialists to think that capital was itself forging the proletariat into a political subject with common experiences, common spaces, common mores and traditions. 

That belief is not reasonable anymore, about Europe and North America at least – and it was never as correct as it was reasonable. 

Cedric Johnson said the other day, at a panel honoring Adolph Reed’s work, that what victims of police harassment and violence have in common is not race but class. That is true – but it is also abstract. Around here, it may be that everything I see and know tells me that police harassment and violence are about race. And local truths about racial harassment and violence are no less true than local truths about workplace harassment and precarity and overwork.

It seems to me that the real challenge of a class-based politics in our world is that it is an inherently abstract, theoretical politics. Building a global alternative to the capital-proletarian class relation is necessarily the most challenging and difficult political struggle imaginable. It is tempting to think that there is some local crystallization of this abstract, global struggle, some everyday struggle that doesn’t have to be translated into this global struggle because it just is this global struggle in a bite-sized form. But I don’t think that’s true. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Ideology: tentative conclusions

The curriculum vitae of ideology as a concept has followed the trajectory of social theory. 

It originated in Destutt de Tracy’s project of educative social reform. Ideology was here the science of ideas, of which political economy was a central extension. The goal was to realize society as a totality of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges or contracts of exchange, and to do so by enlightening the consciousness of social agents, so that they could see what they were trying to do and do it in the most rational way possible. 

The critique of ideology was born with the critique of political economy. For Marx and Engels, the ideological project was doomed to failure. Consciousness lags behind practice and cannot grasp all of the ramifications of practice. We know not what we do, and our aims and intentions do not so much determine our acts as express our retrospective efforts at self-justification and self-understanding. The ideals of market exchange are not realized in market exchange, of necessity, since the “society” of exchangers is only possible on the basis of non-exchange: the exploitation of labor-power. 

This materialist critique of ideology, however, is radically indeterminate – and hence inadequate – for the forward-looking project of the revolutionary transformation of the mode of production. Lukács tries to turn this inadequacy into a virtue with his theory of class consciousness. He presumes that Marx’s theoretical critique of political economy also has the effect of making transparent to the proletariat their demiurge-like position at the center of society. In proletarian class consciousness, conscious self-justification and self-understanding catches its own tail and turns thereby into a prospective knowledge of how to transform society in accordance with human intentions. A new ideology is born – communist ideology – but one with a distinct advantage over Destutt de Tracy’s bourgeois ideology: it can actually grasp the totality of social relations and thereby transform them at will.

Mid-twentieth-century social theory takes Lukács’s hypothesis seriously, but also takes a generic humanism seriously enough to generalize the hypothesis to all human agents. What was in Lukács’s hands a partisan ideology of communist militancy becomes an omni-historical fact of human life: the social construction of reality. When this is operationalized, however, it becomes immediately apparent that, rather than transparency and conscious control, the result is an ever-renewed and massive opacity of social institutions. Made by “us” and re-makeable by “us,” they constantly confront us as made by others and resistant to any change we can initiate. With the generalization of ideology, “the level of the sociology of knowledge is reached – the understanding that no human thought … is immune to the ideologizing influences of its social context” (Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 9). The social world becomes the world of meaning, and ideological division becomes the interminable contest between different meanings of the world. 

In this context, the critique of ideology reasserts itself, but not by reference to social dynamics that frustrate our efforts at conscious control and that falsify our normative ideals. Instead, ideology critique is the critique of every value, every meaning, by reference to a posited counterfactual: another world is possible. Our allegiance to this world – that is, this world’s legitimacy – is undermined by the rational projection of another world, a world free of coercion and temporal restraints, a world where rational conversation would be the only determinant of meaning and value. The entire Marxian problematic is here flipped on its head: whatever frustrates our efforts at conscious control and falsifies our normative ideals is hereby identified as itself ideological, and only the nonexistent society of voluntary and mutually beneficial relations is non-ideological. Ideology critique has taken the place of ideology (in Marx's sense of the term).

There is a shortcut from this moment to the present, a wormhole that takes you from Adorno and Marcuse to neo-Kantian ideal theory in a heartbeat, but I want to take the scenic route. Althusser reasserted Marx’s multi-level conception of society even as he emphasized the relative autonomy of the ideological superstructure. This seems like a return to a path not taken, since it opens the door to analyzing the distinct effectivities of different institutions and practices and reinstates Marx’s distinction between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be. At the same time, though, by seeing ideological institutions as the key to the reproduction of labor power, Althusser magnifies the stakes of controlling the educational apparatuses. His writings were received in the Anglophone world in tandem with Gramsci’s prison writings, with their attention of culture, their emphasis on coalition politics, and their analysis of civil society. No war but culture war seemed to be the lesson. The long march through the universities had begun. 

I’m not being dismissive. Gramsci, Althusser, Therborn, and Hall seem to me to be immensely promising resources. One of the reasons they are so promising, however, is that they provide the tools for analyzing ideology-discourse as ideology

Ideology qualifies and it authorizes. It qualifies individuals as agents of a particular sort, and thereby qualifies them to act in particular ways. It enlists individuals in projects of world-creation and world-maintenance and world-destruction by calling on them according to this name or that: son, comrade, doctor, m’lady. But it also thereby authorizes particular courses of action or practices. It rationalizes, legitimates, justifies.

Kathi Weeks and Sandra Harding are quite explicit about the qualifying work done by standpoint theory. As Weeks says, 


a standpoint is a collective interpretation of a particular subject position rather than an immediate perspective automatically acquired by an individual who inhabits that position. … Thus a standpoint constitutes a subject, but one which does not rely on a transcendental or natural essence. A standpoint is a project, not an inheritance; it is achieved, not given. (Constituting Feminist Subjects, 136)


Qualifying as a feminist is not automatic. A collective practice of calling one another feminists is required, and such a collective practice is neither indiscriminate nor bound and determined by a pre-existing code of attribution. Hence, as Harding drives home, 


it cannot be that women are the unique generators of feminist knowledge. Women can not claim this ability to be uniquely theirs, and men must not be permitted to claim that because they are not women, they are not obligated to produce fully feminist analyses. Men, too, must contribute distinctive forms of specifically feminist knowledge from their particular social situation. ("Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is 'Strong Objectivity'?"in Alcoff and Potter, eds., Feminist Epistemologies, 67)


What emerges here also is the imperative edge of ideological qualification. You must qualify, and if you qualify, you must live up to certain expectations. 


To be a subject is to be subject to certain norms and expectations, of course, but the particular imperative that accompanies the feminist standpoint requires a significant amendment to Therborn’s universe of ideological interpellation. In addition to existential and positional ideologies, we must recognize that political ideologies – e.g., feminism, liberalism, nationalism, Labourism, etc. – operate according to a different set of imperatives. 


Like inclusive ideologies, political ideologies qualify individuals as members of a social world. Like positional ideologies, however, they also acknowledge the oppositional partiality of this social world. To qualify as a feminist is both to be part of a collective subject and to be excluded from and opposed to another collective subject, whether this is conceived as the world of men, the patriarchy, the traditional family, or whatever. But to be a feminist is also to claim that everyone ought to be – in some sense of ought, which we must yet articulate – a feminist. 


The same imperative to be or become qualified is found in all political ideologies, but not always in the same mode. Some political ideologies are explicitly local in the socio-historical mode of address. The imperative to be or become a Lib-Dem is not addressed to or entertained by anyone outside of England and Wales, and even within these domains there is no pretense that it is addressed to everyone. Hegemonic political ideologies – say, Congressism in mid-century India or Zionism in Israel – may address and seek to qualify nearly everyone in a nation or area, but with a much more limited address abroad. 


Other political ideologies, however – liberalism, feminism, Marxism, fascism, Islamism – operate at a different level of generality. These are the ideologies that are often referred to as ideologies as such. They are not confined to any given local or national space, and address themselves, in principle at least, to everyone in the world. This universal address – the hailing of anyone and everyone – need not be univocal. Marxism qualifies factory workers and peasants differentially, for instance. Nonetheless, no one is permitted by Marxism to be a non-participant in the relations of production or the revolutionary process. The feminist standpoint is a political ideological project with the same universal aspirations. 


But ideologies do not just qualify individuals as subjects. They also authorize subjects to act in certain ways. And what is so striking about standpoint theory as an inheritor of the theory of ideology is that as a project it authorizes its subjects to know, to speak as knowers, and to recognize one another as sources of knowledge. 


In retrospect, I think we can appreciate how novel this is. The original liberal project – and the first self-conscious ideology – authorized its subjects to want things, to prefer one state of affairs to another, and to exchange with one another in pursuit of their desires. The Marxist project – the first self-critical ideology – authorized its subjects to make things, and to cooperate with and struggle with one another in the effort to create a new world. The standpoint project authorizes its subjects to interpret themselves and one another, to produce feminist and resistant knowledge, and to speak from their experience. If Althusser’s and Gramsci’s analyses of ideology functioned ideologically to authorize ideological struggle in the universities, standpoint theory authorizes us to treat the whole world as if it were a research university.


The irony is that this has led, in the actual university, to the recovery of “ideology” as a concept, the recovery of “ideology critique” as a project, and the call – by philosophers even! – to attend more carefully to social theory and social movements. Mills – on the basis, I think, of his own reading and re-reading of Marx and Engels on ideology – calls for more attention to “ideal-as-descriptive-model” theorizations of “the reproductive dynamic” of actual systems of oppression ("Ideal Theory as Ideology," 168-9). This would include, though it is not reducible to, tracing “the consequences of oppression for the social cognition of these agents, both the advantaged and the disadvantaged” (169). Mills’s recommendation of non-ideal theory presupposes but goes beyond standpoint theory insofar as it proposes not simply beginning the knowledge project from a particular social position but also mapping social positions themselves. 


Haslanger goes even further in this direction I think. Her criticism of Shelby’s “high road” approach to ideology critique issues in the claim that “systematic racial injustice” – and we can extend this to any social system, I think – “is explained by the systematic looping of schemas and resources that occur in practices and the structures they form. Practices are guided by ideology, i.e., a racist cultural technē. But the ideology is not an independent causal factor… To focus entirely on ideology would be tantamount to explaining why the temperature of the room remains constant by simply pointing to the fact that the thermostat is set at 68F” ("Racism, Ideology, and Social Movements," 14). 


To end on a programmatic note, I’d like to outline some lessons I am taking away from this:

  1. Inquiry into and criticism of ideology always takes place in ideology. We will get nowhere unless we recognize our own situatedness and orientation as inquirers and critics. 

  2. Our location and orientation as subjects qualified by ideology is downstream from the institutional structure of society, the distribution and ordering of rule-generating practices. Hence, one’s location and orientation are not adequately accounted for by listing one’s identities and political affiliations. 

  3. These institutional practices are themselves material-social in their constitution; that is, they organize social relations among people around material resources and powers. The basic question of social theoretical inquiry is: Who can do what to whom at what cost?

  4. Inquiry into and criticism of ideology, if it is to get anywhere, must base itself in a social theoretical account of the material-social bases of practices and the location of the subjects of ideologies in these practices. Haslanger’s example – “that individuals share racist beliefs because they live in a world in which certain groups get the good stuff” (13) – has the form of a general truth. 

  5. Hence, social theory has to take into account the ideological positioning of the inquirer, but the study of ideology has to base itself in social theory, and social theory cannot be reduced to ideology critique. 

Is the Frankfurt School's approach to ideology critique ideological?

Geuss is a sympathetic, meticulous, and reasonable reconstructor of ideology critique as it is  advocated and practiced by the Frankfurt School of critical theory. That ideology critique emerges from his The Idea of a Critical Theory in such a state of hopelessness and helplessness ought to be the final nail in the coffin of the Frankfurt School’s  paradigm in this respect. Either Geuss has badly mischaracterized this aspect of the tradition – which is unlikely given his sympathy, meticulousness, and reasonableness – or else this aspect of the tradition is beyond resuscitation.

Geuss makes clear that Herrschaft, for the Frankfurt School, is essentially hegemonic in the Gramscian sense or voluntary in the Boétian sense. “‘Herrschaft.’” Geuss writes, is power to exercise normative repression,” where “normative repression” is the “frustration of agents’ preferences which makes a claim to legitimacy that is accepted by those agents because of certain normative beliefs they hold” (16). The dominated, on this account, consent to their domination, by definition. More than this, they think their domination is right or good in some sense. As Geuss puts it, “repression is ‘normative’ if the agents are prevented from pursuing their interests by a set of normative beliefs they accept,” and Herrschaft is just the asymmetrical power of normative repression (34-5; my emphasis). The normative beliefs of the dominated, therefore, are the source of their frustration or repression. The claim of legitimacy, in other words, is not just a claim made by the dominant, but is fully accepted by the dominated.

This does not necessarily mean that the legitimacy belief is the basic normative belief, however. The dominated may consent to their domination and believe it to be good because it seems to them the most reasonable means of realizing an independently held normative belief. They may believe that God’s will should be done, and that mortal flesh is weak, and that this weakness requires, therefore, a firm government by a divinely ordained minister, and that the royal line of the Hohenzollerns happens to provide this needed government here and now. The legitimacy of Carol I is not basic to their moral worldview, and their joyous consent to his rule – and the consequent frustration of their pursuit of their own interests – is not entirely personalistic, but depends upon more fundamental moral beliefs, together with some basic factual judgments about the royal succession, etc. 

Nonetheless, this is a very strong version of the voluntary servitude thesis. The normative beliefs of the dominated are the fundamental cause of the repression they experience. The dominated suffer from “false consciousness” and from unfreedom, but “the ‘unfree existence’” from which they suffer “is a form of self-imposed coercion,” since its “‘power’ or ‘objectivity’ derives only from the fact that the agents do not realize that it is self-imposed” (58; emphasis in original). 

This last claim, that the objectivity of their unfreedom is self-imposed, must be expanded upon. Not only is ideological false consciousness the primary cause of the repression experienced by the dominated, it also gives rise to “real social oppression” that is “objective” (74), in the sense that a group of rational agents would arrive at a consensus judgment that it exists – i.e., it is not imaginary or ‘in the heads’ of the oppressed (72). This “objective power” cannot be “automatically resolved by critical reflection” (74). The dominant have an interest in the maintenance of the oppressive status quo, and “established social institutions” are not undone simply by people losing faith in their legitimacy (75). 

However, the Frankfurt School is committed to the notion that the objectivity of these social institutions and the conservative interests rooted in them are consequences of self-imposed ideological coercion. Even if “enlightenment does not automatically bring emancipation in the sense of freedom from the external coercion exercised by social institutions” (75), enlightenment is a prerequisite of freedom from external coercion because external coercion is the house that false consciousness built. False consciousness has constructed an objective, institutional world, and that world will not be torn down by critical theory alone, but critical theory is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as false consciousness was a necessary prerequisite for the building. Consciousness comes first in both cases. 

This also seems to be the presupposition of Rahel Jaeggi’s rethinking of ideology and ideology critique, although she is more equivocal ("Rethinking Ideology," in B. de Bruin et al. (eds.), New Waves in Political Philosophy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). When she analyzes the way in which freedom and equality are ideological in capitalism, she claims that “the labor contract, as a precondition for the market exchange, is at once the embodiment of freedom and equality as well as a means of generating inequality” (68; my emphasis). The notion that practices embody ideas is ambiguous, but Jaeggi’s language generally states that ideas “inform,” “leave their imprint on,” “maintain,” or “constitute” social practices or institutions. These word choices all suggest an ideas-first account, in which ideas are expressed in or at least shape practices and institutions.

To be fair, thought, this is not the whole story. Jaeggi also claims that ideology critique “establishes the link between the normative ideals of freedom and equality and the actual properties and conditions of the institutions that claim to be guided by these ideals” (70; my emphasis). This suggests that ideas come second, as ex post justifications, rather than first, as ex ante intentions

But this passage also leads into one of the most surprising moments in Jaeggi’s depiction of ideology. She follows the above description of ideology critique’s operation with another description, according to which ideology critique exposes how “the ideological understanding of the freedom of contract puts one of the contract parties at an advantage” (70). This implies that it is not the practice of the wage contract itself but the ideological understanding thereof that puts the workers at a disadvantage. To my eye, this casts her previous statements in a new light. Ideological versions of ideals like freedom and equality take hold of practices, it seems, and “leave their imprint” on them in the sense of twisting them or distorting them so that they produce the opposite of the proclaimed norms of freedom and equality. Jaeggi concludes, therefore, that ideological “norms (as in the above-mentioned case, the values of freedom and equality that are constitutive for civil society) are effective, but as effective factors they have become inconsistent or deficient” (75). 

If this is right, then, Jaeggi’s position is somewhat distinct from the Frankfurt School position reconstructed by Geuss, but it may be a distinction without a difference. False consciousness does not necessarily come first for Jaeggi, since it may result from attempts to justify existing practices. However, once ideological justifications exist, they shape or reconstruct the practices from which they emerged, and are effective insofar as they make the practices into engines for producing the opposite of the declared justificatory values. Ideology has rebuilt the objective, institutional world, and that world will not be torn down by ideology critique alone, but ideology critique is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as ideology was a necessary factor in the reconstructing of the world.

I think Jaeggi and Geuss both get caught up in the defense of ideology critique as a practice in its own right, and thereby trap themselves. They wish to defend the honor of the practice, and to underscore its importance. Thus, Jaeggi claims that “The critique of ideology is not something that stands outside of social reality that is regarded as a constellation of delusion and deception; it is the instance that confronts us with the problems and contradictions of this reality in a way that is at the same time a ferment of their transformation” (80). Geuss is much more restrained, concluding only that “the construction of an empirically informed critical theory of society might be a legitimate and rational human aspiration” (95). His other work since The Idea of a Critical Theory, however, has consistently maintained the value of ideology critique as a part of “a political philosophy that can be taken seriously.” (Geuss, “Realism, Wishful Thinking, Utopia,” 233; see also, Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics.)

This investment in the utility or even necessity of ideology critique encourages the critic of ideology to emphasize – and perhaps to overemphasize – the importance of ideas to the construction and maintenance of domination. In this sense, the critic of ideology falls back into the position and characteristic errors Marx and Engels diagnosed in the ideologists. Ideologists, as superstructural workers, have a tendency to exaggerate the effectivity of their product, and to see themselves as closer to the center of social life than they really are.

Monday, February 7, 2022

On Lukács's construction of class consciousness

I did not write the following text with public presentation in mind – it was merely an exercise in trying to clarify for myself Lukács's arguments regarding class consciousness. However, since there have been a few requests on Twitter for me to explain at greater length some of my many objections to Lukács's
History and Class Consciousness, I thought it might be worthwhile to make this available for those who are interested.

Because it originated as reading notes, what follows basically marches through the "Class Consciousness" essay from beginning to end. I do not, except right at the end, bring in anything from Lukács's other essays. I wanted only to make as clear as possible how the essay's argument unfolds. When I copy/pasted this into the blog editor, I lost all the footnotes – and hence all of the page citations – and all of the diacritical marks. I added a few of each back in (notes are at the end) but it was too tedious, so I gave up. Apologies for that! All quotations come from the standard Livingstone translation, but I have sometimes modified them.


Lukács begins from Engels, but interprets Engels in a particular way. Engels makes two claims about historical materialism: that individual motives may spur individual action, but that they do little to determine collective outcomes; and that preceding historical causes drive the formation of individual motives. Lukács transmutes these claims into “the essence of scientific Marxism”: “the realization that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them.” 

He also takes Marx’s remark, from Capital, that reflection on human forms of life “begins post festum” to be specifically about “bourgeois thought.” Rather than a general claim about human beings acting first and seeking to understand afterwards, it becomes a specific claim about bourgeois “dogma.” On this basis, he diagnoses a “dilemma” in bourgeois thought: either the social institutions of the bourgeois epoch become “fossilized” as the eternal form of society itself, or else “everything meaningful and purposive is banished from history,” which becomes a senseless series of fatalities. 

Lukács maintains that Marx has exposed this dilemma “as an illusion” cast by “man’s plight in bourgeois society,” wherein people are “at the mercy of the forces of production.” Marx reduces “the objectivity of the social institutions so hostile to people to relations between people,” and this is supposed by Lukács to “overcome the objectivity attributed both to social institutions inimical to man and to their historical evolution,” an overcoming which results in “the restoration of this objectivity to their underlying basis, to the relations between people.” “This objectivity,” Lukacs claims, is thereby revealed to be “the self-objectification of human society at a particular stage in its development.” 

This is all incredibly unhelpful. It only brings Lukacs back to where he began. “Dialectical materialism,” he claims, “does not deny that people perform their historical deeds themselves and that they do so consciously. But, as Engels emphasizes in a letter to Mehring, this consciousness is false.” 

This is not what Engels wrote to Mehring, however. Engels’s claim was much more limited. He wrote:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought.

Engels is not discussing people in general, but ideologists in particular. As he continues in the next paragraph:

If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly “overcome” by Rousseau with his “Social Contract,” each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and the finality of capitalist production has been added as well, even the victory of the physiocrats and Adam Smith over the mercantilists is accounted as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere – in fact if Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of getting mixed up in the crusades we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and stupidity.

Engels is discussing the peculiar idealism that sees the movement of history as an ongoing argument in which certain intellectual developments supplant older forms of thought by winning ‘the battle of ideas.’ Engels’s point is twofold. The active life of doing and making both precedes the intellectual life of understanding and constructing arguments and this active life is the effective force behind changes in the realm of ideas. Practice precedes theory and drives theory; theory does not precede or drive practice. 

Lukacs turns these claims about theoretical systems into claims about consciousness as such. For Lukacs, action precedes and impels consciousness, and is misrecognized by the consciousness that accompanies it from behind, as it were. The historical objectivity of previous results – themselves unintended outcomes – impels us to act without any awareness of this real motive power. Thrown into the future by the accumulated force of the past, we act without knowing why we act. 

Lukacs, in essence, substitutes “history” for “ideology” in Engels’s claim. In Lukacs’s rewriting, history is a process accomplished by the so-called historical agent consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an historical process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. 

This substitution of history for ideology leads up to Lukacs’s famous “twofold dialectical definition of ‘false consciousness’” and to his definition of class consciousness as “imputed” [zugerechnet] consciousness. Lukacs drives a wedge between “concrete investigation” of false consciousness and the examination of “the empirical individual” – be it “man, class, or people” – in order to discern the “empirically given (and hence psychological or mass-psychological) consciousness.” According to Lukacs, “concrete investigation” can only be carried out as an investigation in “relation to society as a whole.” 

Only when this relationship to the whole is kept in mind does the “dialectical definition” of false consciousness appear. The individual historical agent has a certain “subjectively justified” consciousness, a consciousness that is understandable as a response to the social situation in which agents find themselves. Nonetheless, this subjectively justified consciousness is partial, limited, and, to that extent, objectively false. The historical agent cannot see the whole picture, and strives, therefore, for something it cannot achieve. Because of its objective falseness, this consciousness is not able to obtain its subjective aims, but – and this is where Lukacs pulls the rabbit out of the hat – what it does achieve are “the objective goals of social development, which it does not know and did not will.”

This result depends upon rechristening the unintended outcome of intentional action as the intended outcome of the social totality’s action, the realization of history’s goal by the unwitting agency of individual people, classes, and nations. But this determination of, as it were, the total social consciousness does not yet give us class consciousness, which is supposed to be the object of this investigation. Class consciousness is discerned by moving back one step from the totality, by “infer[ing] the thoughts and feelings which people would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact upon immediate action and on the whole structure of society.” This counterfactual consciousness – the rational assessment and aims “appropriate to their objective situation” – gives us the form of imputed consciousness in general. Class consciousness proper comprises “the rationally appropriate reactions imputed to a particular typical position in the process of production.” 

The first three moments of the dialectical definition of false consciousness gave us something intelligible: individuals acting on a partial understanding of the social whole and thereby achieving unintended results. Similarly here, Lukacs has so far given us something counterfactual but theoretically reasonable: a reconstruction of the consciousness that would be rational for a class-positioned agent with full information. But now he seems to pull another rabbit out of the hat, concluding that “the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual.”

Now, this might be salvageable in a way that the goal of social development is not. It may be that the irrational and inappropriate actions of class-located individuals amount to nothing, precisely because they are irrational and inappropriate. The rationally appropriate course of action for an individual capitalist is to pump as much surplus labor out of their workforce as possible. Any capitalist who is soft-hearted or soft-brained enough to slack up on the exploitation will lose market share and profitability to competitors who act in the rationally appropriate manner. Thus, the social action of the capitalist class as a whole will approximate to the rationally appropriate policy. 

This result depends, however, on the operation of selection mechanisms like competitive markets. Do all class actors face analogous, clearly-defined collective action scenarios with dominant strategies?

No. And Lukacs admits as much. The section that follows his definition of (imputed) class consciousness details the failure of this model to generalize. “For pre-capitalist epochs and for the behavior of many strata within capitalism whose economic roots lie in pre-capitalism,” he begins, “class consciousness is unable to achieve complete clarity.” But this is the thin edge of the wedge. It is not just that the class consciousness of estates and castes is muddled by the “political and religious factors” that mediate their relationship to the economic basis of their existence. “There is,” in fact, “no possible position” within a pre-capitalist society “from which the economic basis of all social relations could be made conscious.* 

This veil between “the vantage point of a particular class” and “the totality of existing society,” a veil that precludes the formation of an actual class consciousness, does not afflict only pre-capitalist classes. Even within capitalist society itself, most classes are so situated that their vantage point “is ambiguous or sterile.” In the cases of the modern peasantry and petit bourgeoisie, “we cannot really speak of class consciousness,” since “a full consciousness of their situation would reveal to them the hopelessness of their particular striving.” That is, there is no rationally appropriate and fully informed strategy in their situation. Only two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, are “pure classes,” capable of forming a real class consciousness. “Only from the vantage point of these classes,” Lukacs writes, “can a plan for the total organization of society even be imagined.” We can see here just how strongly Lukacs is attached to the notion of social totality (the complete information proviso in my reconstruction of his definition above). 

This attachment creates a paradox, however. Already we have seen that the causal force of class consciousness depends upon the operation of a selection mechanism that excludes all pre-modern classes from the set of class conscious historical agents. The totality condition has whittled this down further, leaving only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But it actually has ramifications beyond this. When the totality condition is combined with the selection mechanism, the bourgeoisie ends up in an impossible position. The bourgeoisie has a rationally appropriate strategy – maximize exploitation in order to maximize profits – that can be causally effective in determining the actions of individual members of the class, but this strategy is incompatible with complete information (or a infinitely reiterated game scenario), under which condition it turns into an irrational strategy. In Lukács’s terms, the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie “is cursed by its very nature with the tragic fate of developing an insoluble contradiction at the very zenith of its powers.”

Lukacs is himself very unclear on this point, and may not have understood the implications of his own argument here. The most plausible reconstruction is the most straightforward one: the bourgeoisie, in pursuing the rationally dominant strategy of maximizing profits, immiserates the working class and renders it incapable either of purchasing the products of its own labor (a demand-side theory of crises) or of reproducing its own labor-power (a supply-side theory of crises). In the words of the Manifesto, the bourgeoisie is “incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.” 

Lukacs adorns this conclusion with fancy dress, calling it a “dialectical” antagonism within bourgeois consciousness rather than a “contradictory” one, but the plain conclusion is that the bourgeoisie cannot possess a real class consciousness, either.** The position of the bourgeoisie in production is such that “if they were able to assess both [their situation] and the interests arising from it in their impact upon immediate action and on the whole structure of society,” they would not be able to find any rational strategy to pursue. The strategy that seems rational in guiding their immediate action is fatal in its ramifications on the whole structure of society. The bourgeoisie can have a class consciousness only in the form of a “‘false’ consciousness.”*** 

Thus, Lukacs is driven to the conclusion that only one class in the history of humanity is capable of possessing class consciousness: the proletariat. 

But then he is caught on the other side of the paradox that undid bourgeois class consciousness. The same selection mechanism that ensures bourgeois false consciousness prevails over the idiosyncratic motives of individual capitalists – the operations of market competition in the exchange of commodities – works against the determination of proletarian action by class consciousness. 

The situation of the individual proletarian – or individual group of proletarians – exerts selective pressure to prioritize achievable local goals, such as better pay and better job security, over long-term and highly risky strategies like mobilizing for revolution. Lukacs knows this. He highlights it. He locates “in the center of proletarian class consciousness … and antagonism [Widerspruch] between momentary interest and ultimate goal.” But this just leads him to double down: “class consciousness is identical with neither the psychological consciousness of individual members of the proletariat, nor with the (mass-psychological) consciousness of the proletariat as a whole; but it is, on the contrary, the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class.” In other words, the rationally appropriate strategy for anyone located in the class position of the proletariat is to recognize the long-term untenability of reforms to capitalism and to embrace revolutionary socialism. 

But this is too convenient by half. Lukacs is simply presupposing that his theoretical construction of class consciousness – which assumes that one’s position in the process of production is the only aspect of one’s situation that gives rise to rationally appropriate strategies – is not only a) present to individual proletarians as an available psychological consciousness but also b) that the the analysis of the false consciousness endemic to all the other classes is both i) available to individual proletarians and ii) basically descriptive of the actual strategies pursued by those other classes, such that iii) proletarians can recognize it as the strategy being pursued. In other words, the rationally appropriate strategies (even when these are self-contradictory and hence not rational) are the actual strategies being pursued, and this fact is available to regular empirical consciousness. 

This reveals two insuperable problems with Lukacs’s theory. 

First, he has to, in the case of the proletariat, violate his own strictures about keeping imputed class consciousness separate from empirical-psychological consciousness. He argues that “every momentary interest” of the proletariat is ambiguous – “either it will be a step towards the ultimate goal or it will conceal it” – and that what decides the matter is only “the class consciousness of the proletariat.” But this only makes any sense if class consciousness has here come to mean the mass-psychological consciousness of empirically identified proletarians. The success of the proletarian revolutionary movement depends entirely upon “the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e., on its class consciousness,” which can only mean on the psychological uptake of class consciousness. 

Thus, class consciousness as an imputed rationally appropriate strategy is impossible for all non-proletarian classes – since they cannot pursue a rational strategy given their social situation – but also impossible for the proletariat, since “the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are,” it turns out, not “determined in the last resort by this consciousness” in contrast to “the thought of the individual,” but only by the becoming individual of this consciousness. The proletariat makes the whole world, and will make the whole world consciously just to the extent that individual proletarians become psychologically conscious of belonging to the class that makes the whole world. 

Second, therefore, Lukacs’s construction of class consciousness reduces to a pure moralism. The imputed proletarian class consciousness is simply the capacity to rationally plan the totality of human society. This consciousness belongs to the proletariat because their situation in production is that they make the entire concrete world, the world of use-values, and are therefore able “to see society from the center, as a coherent whole.” As they become psychologically conscious of this class consciousness, they form “revolutionary workers’ councils,” which embody “the economic an political defeat of reification,” since they tend to abolish all separations: “the bourgeois separation fo the legislature, administration, and judiciary,” as well as “the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space” and the separation between “economics and politics.” In short, the real proletarians, as soon as they are really conscious of being proletarian, will act in a really proletarian manner to consciously and methodically create the totality of society as a unity – and thereby also to cancel their existence as proletarians by eliminating classes altogether. 

This is pure moralism because it posits a form of consciousness that sees all, knows all, and acts only and always for the sake of humanity as a whole, and claims that the effectiveness of this consciousness “can only come about as the product of the – free – action of the proletariat itself.” That the proletariat is capable of the conscious and unified creation of the social totality – the total planning of society – is simply a matter to be taken on faith. Any failure to rationally produce this planned society is a failure to achieve the self-canceling proletarian class consciousness. To ask how this consciousness proceeds to determine its acts is to admit that one does not possess this consciousness.

* HCC, 55-7. This is, in fact, a very interesting conclusion with far reaching implications. In many respects it foreshadows the arguments regarding the “moral economy” of the peasantry that emerged from New Left studies, including those of E.P. Thompson, Ranajit Guha, and James Scott. As Thompson put it at one point, “the contest for symbolic authority [between plebians and gentry] may be seen, not as a way of acting out ulterion ‘real’ contests, but as a real contest in its own right” (“Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle without Class,” Social History 3:2 [May 1978]: 159). The point is that in pre-capitalist conditions of production, it is not rationally appropriate for any class to ‘play the game’ – production, exploitation, and resistance to exploitation – economically. Under pre-capitalist (or incompletely capitalist) conditions, forms of economic ‘irrationality’ – cultures of prestige, traditional limits on production, ‘natural’ price-setting, etc. – are themselves rational.

** The standard English translation is hopeless here. Lukács contrasts a dialektischer Widerspruch to a kontradiktorischer Widerspruch, but Livingstone often translates Widerspruch as “contradiction,” muddying the waters.

***HCC, 65. Thus, further down the same page, Lukács observes that, while the bourgeoisie is driven “to clarify its own class interest on every particular issue,” this “clear awareness” – class consciousness itself – “becomes fatal when it is extended to the question of the totality.”