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A Return to Contradictions

Matt McManus

June 9, 2020

I read a recent piece for Sublation by Reid Kane with appreciation, but admittedly some irritation as well. While independently a useful and interesting work of Marxist theorizing, as a response to my own discussion of Marx’s theory of contradictions it falls rather short and doesn’t even appear to have read what I wrote that carefully. Kane’s piece is rather long, and I don’t take issue with the substance of most of it. So, rather than engage in an extensive rebuttal of its primary themes, I’ll simply respond to where he misconstrues my own position. In the concluding section, I’ll also indicate why some of these exegetical disputes matter since they bear on how we should interpret contemporary global capitalism and its various cultural discontents and vulgarities.

Is Marx’s Method Obscure?

One of Kane’s central arguments is that Marx’s theoretical method is not, as I suggested, obscure and in need of explanation. Indeed, his implication is that the failure to understand it has less to do with its intellectual challenges and more with a failure of nerve. Or, at a more exalted level, with the tendency of revolutionary movements “to make peace with global capitalism and abandon the task of world revolution.” As he put it, “the 'obscurity' of the dialectical method was not due to its philosophical or rhetorical abstruseness, but the blindness of intellectuals to the necessity of social transformation, their attachment to the social order upon which they depended.” Kane’s ambition seems to be pathologizing why Marx’s philosophy is conceived as obscure and framing this not in terms of interpretive difficulties, but instead something like a lack of piety or faith in the Marxist socialist project.

Beyond just being an exercise in bad faith argumentation, Kane’s claim runs counter to the historical record. Marx himself recognized that his method was obscure and flirted with writing a short piece explaining his approach to dialectics which was sadly never completed. Indeed, Marx wisely acknowledged that Capital is a difficult book, opining that there is sadly “no royal road to science” and that understanding it takes time and effort. Sadly, Kane’s own piece isn’t exactly a model of clarity, which, contra his rather elitist sentiments, is useful in popularizing and explaining the basics of Marxism. Instead of anything so clear, Kane mostly gives us a very long rehash of what the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm rightly pointed out was a rather “short” twentieth century. A far more politically significant act might be undertaking some efforts to actually reconstruct Marx’s position in a more analytically rigorous way, acknowledging his mistakes (which were sadly plentiful, as with any great thinker), and showcasing its ongoing and profound relevance to the contemporary era, for instance, by actually presenting it in a clear form to those who find such things helpful.

Is Marx’s Theory of Ideology Obscured?

In addition to these rather pedantic debates about whether Marx was wrong in assuming his philosophy was difficult, Kane’s own article is sadly filled with misconstruals and he doesn’t seem to have read my article all that closely. For instance, Kane criticizes my take on Marx’s theory of ideology, claiming the “self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations was not, as McManus asserts, obscured by ideology, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Rather, the self-consciousness of bourgeois society had become ideological because the social form itself had become self-contradictory.” But, of course, I never claimed otherwise. Indeed, I said, “the contradictions of society are often obscured by various forms of fetishism which make social reality appear to us in a variety of ideologically determined ways.” My point was about the obscurity which emerges from the various forms of fetishistic reification which are the key symptoms of living within a world hegemonically dominated by capitalist ideology. And this kind of obscurity is exactly what Marx described in his elegant passages on the subject in Capital:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products. A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour…There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world.

Now, if Kane wanted to mince the finer details of what Marx’s ideological analysis has to say about the twenty-first century, that might in fact be of interest. Regrettably, that was not what we get.

Marx’s Theory of Contradiction in the Neoliberal Era

Lastly, Kane accuses me of being “confused” by Marx’s theory of contradiction, though his only evidence of that is that my “only example of Marx’s treatment of contradiction in his article on that subject is a supposed contradiction between private property and the state. Yet, for Marx, contradiction was not a matter of conflict between two opposed or antagonistic phenomena.” Giving an example isn’t proof of confusion, but brevity; a quality Kane might learn to emulate But he doesn’t seem to have looked very carefully at what I wrote so I will repeat it verbatim here:

This has led to a longstanding and sometimes venomous debate amongst Marxists about where exactly we can see contradictions within capitalism, and which-if any-might prove lethal. Probably the best book on the subject is David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which further breaks them down into foundational, moving, and dangerous contradictions. A good clean example of a contradiction is that existing between private property and the state, which becomes subject to endless ideologically driven fetishizations in capitalist societies. On the one hand, private property is often conceived of as something “natural” or given, predating the state and even threatened by it. You can see expressions of this in the libertarian mantra that the state should be “small” and respect property rights and the distribution of capital that emerges through “free” market transactions. But, on the other hand, property is, of course, not a natural thing; as Harvey says it requires the “collective exercise of coercive regulatory state power to define, codify, and give legal form to those rights and the social bond that knits them so closely together.”

Describing the contradiction between state and private property isn’t even my example, but David Harvey’s (credit or blame where due) as presented in his excellent book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. I referred to the book so interested readers who want more examples can go to it and find (wouldn’t you know it!) sixteen others if they wished. Moreover, I never described these contradictions as necessarily reflecting “two opposed or antagonistic phenomena.” In fact, the only place where the word “antagonism” appears in my article is in the opening quote by Marx describing his theory of contradiction. Now Marx once bitingly proclaimed he was “not a Marxist” in response to bad interpretations of his work. But even he would probably be shocked that, a century or more on, his rather precise language was being described by figures like Kane as non-Marxist. If Kane read my piece carefully, he’d note that I follow Harvey in describing the contradiction between state and private property as not necessarily antagonistic, though it can be. Instead, my language stressed that the contradiction has many “expressions,” some which may serve to retrench contemporary global capitalism and others to undermine it. This of course follows Harvey’s characterization of the state/property contradiction as a “foundational” one, meaning “capital simply could not function” without it, often requiring that “difficulties on one front have…often been contained by strong resistances elsewhere such that general crises are avoided.”

One example of this I touched on was how the spread of global capital - under the auspices of what Panitch and Gindin rightly described as a unique type of American empire not defined by formal territorial acquisition - eventually required the formation of non-state international organizations to lubricate neoliberalization, while insulating the market from political pressures. This included political demands for state-mandated redistribution and regulation of the type that were all too common during the Keynesian heyday, and which neoliberalism was intended to confront. In this, it was initially very successful, reconfiguring domestic states from the USA to China and building much of the international legal architecture that was considered cutting edge during the “end of history” period. But with the hindsight of 20 years, we can see how this effort to overcome the difficulties posed by the contradiction between state and property by globalizing them, in turn, generated new forms of opposition to globalization. This includes somewhat unexpectedly, the rise of new forms of right-wing populism, or what I’ve called post-modern conservatism.

If this analysis is correct, it means that Kane is in fact wrong to understand the self-contradiction between private property and the state as “the negative expression of an underlying contradiction in its attenuation. It represents an attempt to render the self-contradiction of society tolerable, to paper it over”—in this case the contradiction “of society embodied in the proletarian class struggle and, hence, of preserving the domination of the proletariat by capital.” This might have been appropriate in describing the nineteenth-century industrial societies with which Marx was familiar, but at this point that is of purely historical interest. In the present day, far from being attenuated, from Harvey’s perspective (and mine) twenty-first century capitalism sought to overcome the contradiction between private property and the state by expanding it through globalization backed by imperial power. This transformed the state into a disciplinary apparatus whose chief function was establishing conditions of neoliberal governance and subjectivization domestically. But the state itself was increasingly subordinated to both formal legal control by international institutions and what Marx in Capital Volume One described as the “coercive laws of competition” with the market for labor (amongst other commodities) now operating at a truly global level. Indeed, with the newfound passion of billionaires for space, we have reached the point where it can only be appropriate to describe these dynamics in transglobal terms.

Towards the Future

Kane’s understanding of the state, boxed in as it is to a classical Marxist analysis appropriate to its time, misses the real insights revealed by Marx’s method. That is, as I put it, that our social world “has passed through various different stages where humans labored to create and maintain their social world in strikingly distinct ways before each was compelled to transform through the force of their internal contradictions.” Marx’s dialectical materialism is historical and describes social reality, not as it must be according to some inner historical necessity but as the result of highly contingent and overdetermined processes which constantly instantiate themselves in different ways which can rarely be predicted in advance. But which it always falls on us to critically analyze anew. So, there is nothing less Marxist than describing the modern state in the nineteenth-century terms appropriate in Marx’s own time, but not at all for our own. Consequently, when Kane waxes nostalgic about the revolutionary past of socialism, I can only remind him that our goal is to interpret and change the world as it is now for the sake of a better world that might be.

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