Andy Blunden March 2005 (version 2)
In brief, I am a Hegelian Marxist with a “Pragmatist twist.”
I am first and foremost a Marxist; that is, I am a communist and I regard Karl Marx as the most important thinker of our epoch; works such as “Comments on James Mill,” “The 1844 Manuscripts,” “Theses on Feuerbach,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “The 18th Brumaire” and “Capital” I read as a critique of political economy, with the emphasis on “critique.” Marx was still subject, however, to the “progressive,” scientific ethos of his time, and his writings have to be appropriated critically. I regard Marx’s aim to constitute the working class as the subject of history, as untenable since the advent of Taylorism.
Reading Marx with a “Hegelian” slant, I also appropriate Hegel through a Marxist reading, looking to “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” rather than any historical telos or Geist. I use Hegelian concepts such as aufheben, essential development, the Subject-Object relation, etc., as central tools of analysis.
In general, my approach to writers of the past is always guided by a Hegelian notions of Zeitgeist and aufheben: no writer who was significant in their time is ever obsolete, since, when their own disputes are overtaken by other disputes, their contribution is sublated into the basis of whatever follows. This is what I mean by “essential development,” and which can be likened to a process of “collective problem solving.” I use a differentiated concept of Zeitgeist: “world history” is a prospect, not a premise of human development. I reject in principle the possibility of an “identical subject-object.” A pragmatic theory of subjectivity rooted in forms of cooperative activity is necessary to conceptualise a multiplicity of subjectivities.
When I say “Pragmatist,” I refer to the social psychology of Lev Vygotsky, especially his linguistics, and the activity theory of A N Leontyev’s psychology. This school overcomes the subjectivist individualism of American Pragmatism, but itself is subject to Soviet conditions in which the critical moments of human development are suppressed.
Being strongly “cognitivist” in character, the Vygotsky School misses the “irrational” in psychology. Despite its ubiquitous influence, I do not regard Freudian theory as tenable, so in the absence of any adequate, empirically verified psychology with sufficient scope, I find it necessary to be somewhat eclectic in psychology.
A central element of my approach is the construction of a new concept of the Subject, neither liberal nor communitarian, for which I articulate Hegel’s Individual-Universal-Particular with the psychoanalytic notion of “hysteria” (as described by Dianne Showalter) and Charles Sanders’ Peirce’s classification of signs, interpreted as social relations.
My approach to ethics begins from Agnes Heller’s critique of Kant and Habermas, but I appropriate Heller from the above Marx-Hegelian/Pragmatist position. Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument against modernity fails to offer any way forward, but I appropriate his Thomist notions of virtue and meaning in my conception of the historical situation of the subject.
I regard as a central social issue of today, the destruction of the social fabric, in the sense in which it is understood in the literature on “social capital.” This literature is hopelessly positivistic and metaphysical, so it is necessary to supplant the notion of a ‘form of capital’ with the notion of “subjectivity” or “self-determination,” to appropriate the insights of these investigations.
I see Nancy Fraser’s “dual perspectivalism” as providing new insights into modern subjectivity, but the distinction between expressions of subjectivity which need to be accommodated and objectifications which need to be critiqued, and the meaning of “parity of participation.” need clarification.
The growth of the world market, the commodification of all social relations especially since the 1980s, the ubiquity of global communication, travel and migration and the normalisation of universal suffrage, have brought about a widespread, universalist consensus in favour of the equal moral worth of all human beings. This provides an unequivocal basis for modern conceptions of justice. At the same time, the entire social fabric is being destroyed.
Efforts to grasp this theoretically have tended to misfire because the conception of the person as a sovereign subject is wrongly taken to be a fact, or at least a norm, rather than the possible outcome of a still-unfinished, long drawn out historical process. More powerless and marginalised than ever before, the modern person is only halfway to being a sovereign subject — no longer the closed in member of an ancient community, but not yet the sovereign individual of a utopian future. Subjectivity is partially differentiated, neither individuated nor socially integrated.
Conceptions of justice founded on the conception of the sovereign individual under conditions where such a subject does not and cannot exist, founder chiefly on the conception of subjectivity. Lacking an adequate concept of the subject, subjectivity representing accommodation to objectifications of the past, may be confused with subjectivity assimilating new forms of practice and association, and social movements can be confused with abstract general categories such as “voters.” Nevertheless, modernity has already created a universalist conception of justice, which attaches rights to persons, not subjects.
As a heuristic device for critique of theory, I use “word-meaning” as the unit of analysis in Vygotsky’s sense. Words have their own genealogy, and so too does social thought; but only the union of thought and word provides a meaningful subject of analysis.
Words have meaning within a particular “expert discourse,” i.e., formal discourse within some kind of institution. Here meaning is given by its connections to other words internal to the specific discourse, and validated by practices proper to its institutions, be it scientific, theological, juridical or whatever. But a word only takes on a social meaning when it is validated for general use, carrying the weight of whatever institution has validated it.
But only a social movement can give reality to a word. Social movements demonstrate that a word has real meaning, motivating social action and forming the focus for practices. Social movements have their own genealogy, which may intersect with word meaning.
The unit of analysis for social movements is the social subject, its forms of organisation, decision-making, social composition and self-consciousness.
But words have meaning and social movements exist only in so far as they are performed by individuals. Thus ultimately words have meaning only insofar as they participate in the activity of individuals and social significance only insofar as they are performed by individuals in connection with social movements. But social movements cannot validate the meaning of words in the same way as an expert discourse, where concepts are subject to specialised processes abstracted from personal and political pressures. A word is effective for individuals and social movements only to the extent that it carries this weight. Nevertheless, I reject the structuralist notion that individuals count for nothing in history. I value Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the constraints and creative possibilities of an individual in some class location.
The point is to trace how these three aspects of reality intersect with one another: institutions, social movements and individuals.
The transformation of relations of production (here giving significance to the “organisational” aspect of the relations of production, not just technology) as well as personal life (the raising of children, sex, career, etc.) form an ever-present substrate of social and political life. How something happens may depend on all sorts of processes, but when and where it happens is usually ultimately traceable to these “subterranean” changes, never for a moment denying the reciprocal relation between consciousness and practical life; there can be no sharp line between “base” and “superstructure,” social relations and “forces of production.”
The unit of analysis for understanding individuals is not simply the interpersonal relation, nor the individual activity, but collaborative activity. Person-to-person relations are always mediated, so the understanding of person-to-person relations always revolves around the form of mediation, whether collaborative activity, common ideals, solidarity, exchange or whatever. Thus capitalism is approached from the analysis of the commodity relation, in contrast to collaborative labour as such, and capital is taken as a social relation. Objectifications such as the market or the state also mediate person-to-person relations.
By “objectification” I mean both material objects invested with social meaning, and specific forms of activity, which are no longer performed directly as the expression of a subject, having been determined by past conflicts, but subsequently become the site of a new subjectivity. Objectification differs from “reification,” because the object is not “natural” but depends on subjective activity for its continued existence; objectification differs from “materialisation” because its content is human subjective activity not inert matter; objectification differs from “externalisation” because what was “internal” is modified in the subject-object activity; “alienation” is a special case of objectification because the subject finds the objectification “alien” and failing to meet its needs.
Jean-Paul Sartre (in his Critique of Dialectical Reason) makes a rigid dichotomy between “white-hot” revolutionary subjectivity (the fused group), and the “practico-inert” institution, with nothing in between. But subjectivity is a relation in which objectivity is always present, and a process of the assimilation of the object.
Ethical politics arises in a specific conjuncture in the development of modernity, in which corporate restructure is completing the destruction of the social fabric on which capitalism has lived since its inception. This conjunction is bringing to light what are in fact epochal tasks.
I rely on the periodisation of modernity set out in For Ethical Politics, in which the current juncture begins with the 1980s corporate restructure marked by privatisation and commodification of all social relations, the collapse of “really existing socialism,” and post- “identity politics” in the sense of the completion of the demobilisation of social movements through the process of particularisation, and the onset of “alliance politics.”
The relations of command which exist within large capitalist enterprises and bureaucratic apparatuses are now secondary in importance to market relations. There is a certain sense in which society has returned to a stage of private labour with which Marx was concerned in his earliest work. Thus the centre of attention comes to be the “micro-politics” and “micro-economics” existing in person-to-person relations. Instead of hypostatising entities which actually exist in the relation of person to person, I see the task to be explaining what various concepts and policies mean in terms of person-to-person relationships.
The destruction of social fabric (the decline in social trust, break-down of the family, litigiousness, destruction of job security, etc.) makes any conception of the good life unattainable. The result is the ‘death of the subject’, or the reduction of subjectivity to, on the one hand, the consciousness of isolated, powerless individuals, and on the other immensely powerful corporate subjects lacking personality. The critique of objectifications corresponds to the practical reconstruction of social subjectivity.
The commodity relation is the foremost focus of our attention, as the root cause and essence of all our current difficulties. Forms of collaboration which can transcend the commodity relation are needed, to make a reality of the myth of the sovereign individual subject.
Our approach to the subject recognises that the modern subject differs from the ancient subject because individual, universal and particular have become differentiated from one another (and here I use the Hegelian concept of Subject), and that corresponding to this, the three registers of word meaning (i.e., the Peircean signs: icon, index and symbol) have also become differentiated from one another. Reconstruction of subjectivity, and the social fabric, therefore, cannot be achieved by efforts to bring these three registers back into identity, as this would correspond to nothing but an attempt to return to pre-modern times. The concept of the subject here is an on-going project.
Beginning from the generalised notion of the equal moral worth of all human beings, arising from conditions of the world market, I modify Heller’s rendering of the Kantian imperative as: “What we do is decided by us.” This differs from a proceduralist definition in that “us” begs the question of participation in forms of effective collaboration, something altogether denied to masses of people, whose participation in the division of labour, if any at all, is limited to the market.
I promote the value of “solidarity” which means “I support what you do.” However, solidarity is not ethically prescribed; I can choose whether or not I wish to support what you do. I therefore translate the precept of the equal moral worth of all human beings as: “The right of every person to participate in self-governing forms of life of their own choosing.” This right extends to individuals who can be deemed not to have freely chosen their subjectivity, institutionalised in the rights of the child and the anathema attached to practices such as female circumcision.
The universalism arising from modern conditions has a long history, beginning from ancient obligations to outsiders, and cannot be deduced from solidarity, but constitutes is precondition.
Identifying the main social problem of our time as destruction of the social fabric means that our attention is centred on the notion of “solidarity.” Solidarity is a relation in which one subject affirms and lends its active support to another subject, which is a “stranger” to it. I see solidarity (with strangers) as a third stage of social integration: (1) assimilation (“you are no different from me, but you fail to meet the standards of this society”) (2) accommodation (“you are different from me, I tolerate you, but I give you no support”) (3) solidarity (“I support what you do”). Most current thinking on difference concerns only ‘conversation’ and misses forms of social collaboration which are the basis for solidarity.
I take it for granted that, in investigating any concept or phenomenon, tracing its genealogy and history, identifying crucial points of intersection and being able to periodise the thing, in different registers according to how a word is used, the rise and fall of social movements, changes in forms of capitalist organisation, and so on, and the interconnections between the historical trajectories on different registers, always sheds light on the meaning of something and its present dynamics. What did different writers mean by something, what use did they make of a word or concept, what movements influenced a word and its usage, and so on. Formal critique of a concept has its place within such an historical articulation.
Read up on history of international law, and add a critique of the structuralist and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity.