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January 27, 2015

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'The Mode of Production as Society's Structure'

Posted: 27 Jan 2015 12:15 AM PST

Daniel Little:


Figure: Althusser's conception of the CMP (RP Resch, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory)

The mode of production as society's structure: Sociologists study social structure and the effects that structures have on individual behavior and life outcomes. But what do they have in mind when they refer to "structure"?

It turns out that there are important ambiguities in the idea of social structure. The word is sometimes used to refer to functioning entities or systems within society. The state is a structure within society; likewise is the system of public education. But the term can also be used to refer to the structure of society. Here we have statements like "the age structure of Egypt is X" and "the occupational structure of Great Britain is Y". In this usage, we are being directed to a descriptive feature of society -- the way that various elements hang together. Income stratification is a structural feature; the state is a structural entity.

There is a third meaning associated with "structure" as well: the idea that society possesses a structure of interconnected parts and sub-systems, and that the parts influence each other in systematic ways. To outline the structure of society is to provide a theory of how it works (in part, anyway).

This usage is illustrated in Marx's extended concept of the capitalist mode of production, in which various large elements -- technology and production, distribution, wage labor, property ownership, political authority, culture and ideology -- hang together in functional ways. Marx describes this system as one consisting of a base (forces and relations of production) and superstructure (state, ideology, culture), with the workings of class interest serving as the engine of stability and change. So Marx looks at capitalism as a system. Consider this statement from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the basic determinants of social change. The mode of production represents a complex and objective reality to which individuals must adapt in their behaviors.

Now consider how Nicos Poulantzas defines the mode of production as a structural whole in Political Power and Social Classes:
By mode of production we shall designate not what is generally marked out as the economic (i.e. relations of production in the strict sense), but a specific combination of various structures and practices which, in combination, appear as so many instances or levels, i.e. as so many regional structures of this mode. A mode of production, as Engels stated schematically, is composed of different levels or instances, the economic, political, ideological and theoretical: it is understood that this is merely a schematic picture and that a more exhaustive division can be drawn up. The type of unity which characterizes a mode of production is that of a complex whole dominated, in the last instance, by the economic. (13-14)

(Poulantzas goes on to draw a distinction between the mode of production and the social formation (15); essentially his view is that the social formation is the concrete reality of a social order at a time, while the mode of production is a theoretical representation that describes that order.)

These texts serve to illustrate a specific and comprehensive view of the sense in which society has a structure. Each substantive term warrants analysis.

Definite relations of production -- property relations, relations of power and authority, relations defining the terms of economic interaction. The terms of these relations are essentially beyond the control of the individuals who fall within them; they represent a supra-individual reality to which the individual must accommodate. The system of wage labor is a clear example in Marx's theory. In a society in which wage labor is the dominant system of labor control, individuals gain the resources needed to satisfy life needs by selling their labor time which is then directed and managed by the purchaser. This is a structural condition that the worker confronts in the social environment around him or her.
Material productive forces -- the level and implementation of productive technology, including locations of production, tools, machines, materials processing, mines, agriculture, and the forms of knowledge associated with each of these. The ensemble of these items constitutes another fixed aspect of the social environment within which human beings live and subsist.
Economic structure of society -- the system of property relations and material institutions and technology through which society produces goods and conducts the distribution of value and surplus value (income and access to goods).
Legal and political superstructure -- the institutions through which law and political power are exercised and maintained.
Forms of social consciousness -- the cognitive and epistemic frameworks through which ordinary members of society understand the forces that surround them and the roles that they play within those forces and institutions.
Levels or instances of social organization -- the clusters of institutions that make up the "economic, political, ideological, and theoretical "'levels'" of existing society. Factories, department stores, and banks fall in the economic level; the legislature, the police and military forces, and the agencies of the state fall in the political level; and the contents and institutions of transmission of beliefs about the world fall in the ideological and theoretical levels.

Marx and other scholars who work within the framework of historical materialism hold, as a large empirical hypothesis, that there are causal and systemic relations among these items, and the generic mechanism of class interest and class conflict is the transmission belt that conveys causal influence from one sector to another. They believe that the "needs" of the economic structure are secured by the political structure, through the mechanism of class interests; likewise, the ideological and theoretical structure is shaped by the interests of various classes, leading to a high degree of conformance between the content of "social consciousness" and the prerequisites of stability of the economic structure.

The template of historical materialism as a "Gray's Anatomy" for modern capitalism has often been criticized as being mechanistic, over-simplified, and even fictional. But in its heart the scheme is a perfectly intelligible hypothesis about how several aspects of contemporary society fit together. Property relations define individual interests, and the system of wage labor defines the opportunities available to working people. Legislative and governmental policies have effects on the property system, and the class that owns the bulk of this property is perfectly capable of recognizing the consequences of this policy or that. Having the means to influence government, the owning class is able to shape government policy and personnel in ways that are compatible with its interests. Likewise, owners of property are able to recognize the advantage of being in a position to influence public consciousness and the terms of public debate. So the components of the "ideological apparatus" -- think tanks, newspapers, publishing houses, television networks -- are intensely contested, and the power of the owning class to influence the content of these outlets is great. Here again we have a fairly simple empirical argument for the conformance of the organs of social consciousness to the needs of the propertied class. And if it seems far fetched to hold that the owners of wealth are very willing to exert their power in these ways, just look at the recent announcement of the 2016 election-year budget of the political network funded by the Koch brothers -- $889,000,000 (link)!

It is no longer common in sociology to find value in Marx's theory of capitalist society. But really, the structuralist view he arrived at in the 1850s and 1860s seems pretty prosaic today in the context of an economic system that systematically creates astronomical wealth for the one percent and stagnant poverty for the majority of society. Median household income in 2012 in the United States was $51,371, and almost all states showed a decline in median household income between 2000 and 2012 (link). And it is almost tautological to say that the property system explains both facts -- the explosion of the wealth and income of the one percent and the stagnant or declining incomes of the majority of the population.

Or as Marx concludes Chapter Six of Volume I of Capital

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the "Free-trader Vulgaris" with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Links for 01-27-15

Posted: 27 Jan 2015 12:06 AM PST

'Does Monopoly Power Cause Inflation? (1968 and all that)'

Posted: 26 Jan 2015 03:32 PM PST

Nick Rowe:

Does monopoly power cause inflation? (1968 and all that): Here's a question for you: Suppose there is a permanent increase in monopoly power across the economy (either firms having more monopoly power in output markets, or unions having more monopoly power in labour markets). Would that permanent increase in monopoly power cause a permanent increase in the inflation rate?
Most economists today would answer "no" to that question. It might maybe cause a temporary once-and-for-all rise in the price level, but it would not cause a permanent increase in the inflation rate. The question just sounds strange to modern economists' ears. They would much prefer to discuss whether a permanent increase in monopoly power caused a permanent reduction in real output and employment. What has monopoly power got to do with inflation?
To economists 40 or 50 years ago, the question would not have sounded strange at all. Many (maybe most?) economists would have answered "yes" to that question. ...

 

'Techno-Neutrality'

Posted: 26 Jan 2015 11:54 AM PST

Dietz Vollrath:

Techno-neutrality: I've had a few posts in the past few months (here and here) about the consequences of mechanization for the future of work. In short, what will we do when the robots take our jobs?
I wouldn't call myself a techno-optimist. I don't think the arrival of robots necessarily makes everything better. But I do not buy the strong techno-pessimism that comes up in many places. Richard Serlin has been a frequent commenter on this blog, and he generally has a gloomy take on where we are going to end up once the robots arrive. I'm not bringing up Richard to pick on him. He writes thoughtful comments on this subject (and lots of others), and it is those comments that pushed me to try and be more clear on why I'm "techno-neutral". ...

Paul Krugman: Ending Greece’s Nightmare

Posted: 26 Jan 2015 09:06 AM PST

"The problem with Syriza's plans may be that they're not radical enough":

Ending Greece's Nightmare, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza coalition, is about to become prime minister of Greece. He will be the first European leader elected on an explicit promise to challenge the austerity policies that have prevailed since 2010. And there will, of course, be many people warning him to abandon that promise, to behave "responsibly."
So how has that responsibility thing worked out so far?
To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece's May 2010 "standby arrangement" with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. It's a remarkable document, in the worst way. The troika, while pretending to be hardheaded and realistic, was peddling an economic fantasy. And the Greek people have been paying the price for those elite delusions.
You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. ... What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. ...
What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn't carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. ...
Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. ...
So now that Mr. Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to skip the lectures calling on him to act responsibly...
If anything, the problem with Syriza's plans may be that they're not radical enough. Debt relief and an easing of austerity would reduce the economic pain, but it's doubtful whether they are sufficient to produce a strong recovery. On the other hand, it's not clear what more any Greek government can do unless it's prepared to abandon the euro, and the Greek public isn't ready for that.
Still, in calling for a major change, Mr. Tsipras is being far more realistic than officials who want the beatings to continue until morale improves. The rest of Europe should give him a chance to end his country's nightmare.

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