I have almost completely failed to persuade the commentators on this blog to break loose from the traditions of Marxist jargon and hagiography so that they can think in fresh ways about our current social, economic, and political situation [I except Wallace Stevens, whose comments have been very much in the spirit I was trying to engender.] I have tried personal stories, reminiscences, and bits and snatches of statistical data culled from the Internet, all without much success. I am going to have one more go at it, and then, as they say in the soaps, move on. I will be talking about Plato, Marx, and Max Weber, so maybe the manifest seriousness of such a discourse will encourage folks to pay close attention.
Let me set the stage for my remarks today by quoting part of Stevens’ useful discussion of the work of Gerald Cohen. Here is Stevens:
“Cohen mounts a very strong critique of what he calls the “obstetric doctrine,” or “radical endogeny” in classical Marxism—i.e., “that the full development of a problem always issues in its solution.” In Cohen’s view, this doctrine, inherited from Hegel, leads, when applied to historical and social issues, to the belief that a solution arises when “the problem itself is consummated, when it reaches its highest pitch.” Cohen: “Consider, for example, the problem posed by capitalism, as Marx and Engels envisaged it—the problem, to describe it simply, of massive power to produce, alongside massive poverty. As that problem deepens, its solution looms, as and because the problem deepens.” Cohen cites the famous passage in the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” (“No social order ever perishes before…”) and concludes that this leads, for Marxism, to the “happy result” that “Social repair—like conceptual repair, as Hegel conceived it—cannot come from without and always will be found within, provided that the thing is really broken. The utopian project is, therefore, both impossible and unnecessary.””
Inasmuch as I have several times quoted favorably that famous passage from the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and have made it the central insight of my paper, “The Future of Socialism,” the best way I can see to make clear what I have been trying to say is to explain why, in my acceptation of that passage, I do not fall into the error of drawing from the “obstetric doctrine” the conclusion of “radical endogeny.” [I have my problems with some of Cohen’s work, but you have to love the wit of these two phrases.] Here is the original passage [in an English translation, of course]:
No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.
[Just to make the obvious explicit, Cohen gets the phrase “the obstetric doctrine” from Marx’s image of the new order maturing in the womb of the old, which might seem to imply that social change is a job for an obstetrician rather than a surgeon or a butcher.]
There are three very different ways in which social theorists have understood and employed such terms as democracy, aristocracy, dictatorship, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, bureaucracy, working class, and bourgeoisie. The oldest, which we may attribute in one form or another to Plato and also to Aristotle, is to construe such terms as the names of pure forms or Ideas, which find approximate instantiation in the experienced world. It follows that when we seek to employ these terms, we must first analyze them as pure forms in order to understand their true nature. Then we can look at the world and determine, with regard to some actual society, whether it does or does not have a feudal economy or a capitalist economy, whether it is a democracy or an aristocracy, and so forth.
The second way in which we can understand these terms is to construe them as summary descriptions of a variety of complex and multifarious social realities. What is a democracy? Do a comparative description and analysis of several dozen nation states that identify themselves as democracies and look for their common characteristics. What is the role of governmental regulation of economic activity in a capitalist economy? Once again, examine a spectrum of national economies that self-identify as capitalist, and see what sorts of actions the central governments take to regulate the activity of corporations, hedge funds, or venture capital firms.
The third way to understand such terms – the correct way, in my judgment – is to construe them as what Max Weber called “ideal types.” There is a rather chewy Wikipedia entry on “ideal types” that captures Weber’s central notion, albeit not too felicitously. Here is the first paragraph:
“An ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. It is not meant to refer to perfect things, moral ideals nor to statistical averages but rather to stress certain elements common to most cases of the given phenomena. It is also important to pay attention that in using the word “ideal” Max Weber refers to the world of ideas (German: Gedankenbilder "thoughtful pictures") and not to perfection; these “ideal types” are idea-constructs that help put the seeming chaos of social reality in order.”
The ideal type is a hypothetical construction designed to help us in thinking about social realities so complex that they threaten to evade understanding. The test of the adequacy of an ideal type is its success in leading us to new, suggestive understandings that can be confirmed by detailed empirical data. If an ideal type ceases to yield useful results, it should be revised in the light of new data.
This, to put it simply, is how I understand Marx’s famous statement about the material components of new, higher relations of production maturing in the womb of the old society. First of all, Marx’s conception of capitalism [and also of feudalism] is in Weber’s sense of the term an ideal type. Marx looks at the world around him, in all its endless complexity, and he identifies certain elements that he judges are somehow centrally important in capitalism. He ignores the forms of dress or speech or the religious preferences of the “new men” whom everyone is fascinated with – the entrepreneurs starting businesses and becoming very rich in one generation – and he concludes that what is really important about them, what is definitive, is that they hire wage labor and produce goods for sale in markets, all the while guided by a fierce concentration on the profit they are making. Marx looks backward in time to the centuries prior to his own, and finds that certain defining marks of these capitalists make an appearance of sorts very much earlier in time, when the dominant social and economic order is feudal in nature. The more Marx learns about the centuries leading up to the nineteenth, the more it becomes clear to him that these early evidences of the development of new forms of economic activity and new ways of thinking about economic activity are essential precursors of the capitalism that has come to maturity in England and is just beginning to develop in his native Prussia. Marx comes to realize that the dramatic political revolutions that dominate everyone’s thinking – the French Revolution, the English Revolution, the American Revolution – are not the initiations of new economic arrangements but are actually the ratifications in the political realm of economic changes that are well under way.
All of this, worked up into a theory vastly more complex than I have indicated, leads him to conclude that the large scale transition from one form of economic organization to another requires that many of the elements of the new economic organization have their roots in changes that have taken place within the old economic organization – that the “the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society,” in Marx’s pregnant phrase.
Guided by Marx, who is, in this as in so much else, wise and insightful and profound, I ask myself: What are the developments now taking place within advanced capitalism that could be understood as the elements of what might become a transition to socialism? In my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” I focus on one important development within large corporations. In a blog post I put up a little while back, I focus on other developments. I do not draw from Marx’s text the absurd conclusion that socialism will arrive by itself, as it were, if we just sit back and wait for it to mature in the womb of capitalism. But I also do not make the mistake of supposing that a transition to socialism just requires enough brave, dedicated fighters at the barricades, regardless of the stage of development of the capitalism they are trying to overthrow.
Therefore, I spend my time looking at capitalism and trying to discern in its evolution elements that could play a part of a transition to socialism. I do not make the mistake of supposing that faithfulness to the ipsissima verba of Marx’s writings is an important part of any such transition, nor do I imagine that Marx already knew and said pretty much all I need to know about the world today.
OK. That is as clear as I can make it.