Sunday, June 19, 2011

Alienation and the Materialist Conceptioan of History

Marx by producing the materialist conception of history was also producing the materialist conception of alienation. The materialist conception of history is the only genuine, comprehensive and consistent materialism. It laid the basis for identifying the real nature of capitalist alienation together with the historical process that dissolves it. Hegel never succeeded in finding the limits preventing humanity from transcending its alienation. Hegel shares this fundamental inability to understand both the nature of alienation and the means whereby it can be abolished with the Young Hegelians; Feuerbach; the philosophical materialism of the Enlightenment and the Classical School of Political Economy.
Despite individual differences obtaining between them they are bound by a common metaphysical limitation. Marx overcame these socio-ontological limitations in the form of the materialist conception of history which is inseparably grounded in revolutionary material praxis. The seeds of the materialist conception of Marx are located in his 1844 Manuscripts. Here the concept of social relations of production| “had its first and decisive elaboration.” Marx’s new and revolutionary materialism constitutes a radical break with the metaphysical materialism of Feuerbach and the Enlightenment. The materialist conception has a dual nature as both social ontology and methodology.

Hegel was the first modern philosopher to explicitly and systematically present the problem of alienation as a central socio-ontological question for philosophy. By placing the ontology of man’s social being at the centre of the philosophical stage the entire character of philosophy was revolutionised. This is to call into question the very existence of philosophy as the medium for a solution. After Hegel further solutions to the problem of man’s alienation were sought both by the Young Hegelians and Feuerbach. But all these thinkers were the prisoners of idealism since each in his own way, understood the problem as one to be solved ideologically and not historically thereby entailing praxis. By thus confining solutions to the ideological sphere reform, not revolution, was their moderate programme. Such ideological prescriptions amounted to a denial that alienation is a necessary feature of capital requiring the surgical process of revolution for its elimination and instead assumed that alienated society can be liberated from alienation. Correct philosophy, not social revolution, was their prescription.

The philosophical materialism of the European Enlightenment bore an idealist character. This limited it as a basis for explaining alienated existence. Attempts to represent Marx’s materialism as merely a development of traditional materialism is to imprison his conception within metaphysical limits thereby turning it into another variant of ideology. French naturalist materialism, notwithstanding its revolutionary characteristics, was essentially a disguised form of idealism that never succeeded in systematically concerning itself with the real concrete facts and instead got enveloped in the dense fog of ideology.
Metaphysical materialism conceives the rational as standing in an external relation to men, determining and regulating human existence. “For the Enlightenment, reason was the ultimate principle of the being and becoming of nature and society. The task of philosophy is to discover and elaborate this principle, so that society will correspond to the eternal and unchanging laws of nature (Lukacs: Hegel; p. 35).” By thus misconceiving the meaning of nature, French materialism was positing a notion as determinant of society instead of concrete social forces. This is tantamount to claiming that conceptual abstractions determine human existence which is to assume that man is nothing but an idea. In this way the factor of consciousness is regarded as the specific characteristic of men. “It follows that analysis cannot engage with a real object, but only with an ideal objectivity. The relation between the theory and its object contracts, due to the ideal character of the latter, into a mere relation of idea to idea, an internal monologue within thought itself. The object of analysis thus slips through our fingers; it is, as Lenin pointed out, impossible for us to undertake any study of the facts, of social processes, precisely because we are no longer confronting a society, a real object, but only the idea of society, society in general. (Colletti: From Rousseau to Lenin; p. 3)”.

These rational laws of economics are endowed with a reality which transcends history and are construed as having an existence not confined to a specific concrete economic system. In this way these abstract historical laws are conceived as absolute abstractions which is to misapprehend their specific nature. Construed as such their meaning is misunderstood and consequently instead of their being recognised as real specific economic laws of history with limited scope they are dissolved into abstractions of the mind. This reduces political economy to ideology. This is how Pilling can make the following observation:

"... Marx was to centre his entire critique of political economy on what he considered its decisive weakness –its tendency to view society ahistorically, or, more specifically, its inclination to treat capitalist economy as one working directly in accordance with the laws of nature. All Marx’s detailed criticisms of political economy’s categories of value, money, capital etc., which fill the pages of Capital and even more so of Theories of Surplus Value, rest finally upon this, his basic criticism." (ibid., Pilling; p. 10)

Marx by centring his attention on classical economy’s ahistoricism, its metaphysical nature, was able to reveal its inability to demonstrate the historical and transitory nature of capitalist society and the need to go beyond it in the form of socialist society. By this means he indicated the classical  economy’s inability to concern itself  with a real concrete object, a particular society, and instead concentrate on consciousness. Consequently Marx ends up by going beyond these economists by producing his revolutionary new analysis of both political economy and the capitalist economic system. Through the medium of such analysis the conditions (or programme) for the elimination of alienation are being outlined. The condition for Marx’s transcending the ideology of the classical economists with his new powerful tool of the materialist conception of history is being outlined. Classical economy by contrast was rooted  in a naturalist materialism the origin of which can be traced back to Locke. This materialism naturalises social phenomena by subjecting them to the Midas touch. Social phenomena are thereupon posited as the immediately  given of empiricism. Consequently there is no need to trace the mediating links that connect economic phenomena to their corresponding essence since under materialist empiricism phenomena are conceived as immediately identical with their essence. This explains how Ricardo immediately identified value with price failing to comprehend that the phenomena, price, by its very nature, deviates from value.

Marx, on the other hand, proceeded in the opposite direction: Like the materialists he accepted the argument that all phenomena including social phenomena were natural. This is to say that they were grounded in nature. But he did not stop at that since he went one step ahead thereupon revolutionising the entire character of materialism by ‘socialising’ all phenomena whether natural or social. In this way nature was conceived as a social category So all phenomena are natural and social. By this means Marx’s materialist conception subordinates the natural to the social; natural objects are situated within a social context. The outcome is that no phenomena can be conceived independently of society. Since phenomena must be conceived from a social standpoint it follows that to preserve facticity they must be investigated from the context of a particular society i.e. particular social relations. To acknowledge that all phenomena are social i.e. are socially constituted means to grasp the nature of their sociality if they are to be made intelligible. And this obviously entails apprehending how they are socially constituted. But this is to seek to apprehend how they are ‘manufactured’. This means going beyond their ‘thereness’ as empirically given and tracing their historical nature. And thus we have the materialist conception of history. Thereupon the materialist conception, as method, destroys with one blow the reductive analysis of materialist empiricism and thereby the method of Ricardo.
It was the materialist conception of history, a new conception of materialism that formed the basis of a correct theory of alienation. Marx’s materialist conception went beyond philosophical materialism by broadening the foundation on which materialism had been constructed to include such objective constituents as the objects of nature; the material activity of labour; manufactured objects; social relations of production. This is a materialism that put man at the centre while nature was now only significant within social dimensions. No longer could abstractions be posited as determinants of human existence: the process of consciousness is no longer mistaken as the real concrete process. Instead men are conceived as engaged in a socially mediated dialogue with nature involving the use of man-made use values. In this way concrete men are explained from themselves, from their foundation without any recourse to any metaphysical principles. Man is the source of man; man is free. Marx’s materialism is not simply ontological in character and that it is also a methodology. It is a method by which the nature of capitalism and alienation is conceived.

This piece was written many years ago by me. My conception has shifted since then. However I still think that the piece still retains interest.