New Departures in Marxian Theory

Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, eds., New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006)

In a paper in this volume Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff contend that human subjects are constituted by ever-changing and always-contradictory determinations. Like other entities, from institutions to words, people are overdetermined, constituted by the influences of all the aspects of their lives. Such subjects therefore exist “in contradiction or ceaseless change,” pushed “in contrary behavioral directions at any one moment” (54). Over time they are propelled toward an evolution which is “inevitably jumpy, non-smooth, and generally deeply uneven in character” (55).

While that may be so, one encounters in the book a singularly focused project which has been sustained and deepened for more than twenty-five years now. The authors pursue today the goal they announced in the late 1970s: to develop a non-reductionist and class-focused Marxian theory; to use the new point of view to critically analyze other frameworks and arguments, old and new; and to rethink the world afresh. The book’s seventeen reprinted essays (dating from 1982 to 2003) and helpful new introduction allow the reader to experience something of the drama of this new thinking as it has developed over time. In their general commitment, however, the articles are of one piece. Whatever uneven and incessantly changing contradictions may have shaped the human subjects who produced this work (and as economists working orthogonally to their discipline, they no doubt experienced adverse professional pressures), time and change seem to have sustained and renewed the effort rather than disrupting or deflecting it.

Presumably the authors’ sustained energy is due in part to the fact that the project, a big one, has yielded big rewards. First of all they have changed the world’s understanding of Marx: they have read Capital and Theories of Surplus Value in a new way. As they argue, Marx is concerned in those volumes to visualize and understand capitalist class processes. Marx’s class theory differs, however, from the one that many Marxists have found in his work. It is not focused on a binary opposition between worker and capitalist. Nor is it defined by differential access to power or property, as some who emphasize binary capitalist/worker conflict (or who, like Poulantzas, have sought to identify “middle” class positions on the basis of power or property positions lying in between the extremes) have had it. Nor, one might add, is Marx’s class-theoretic work in Capital simply functional to a more important quest to identify an essential contradiction thought to fuel capitalism’s inevitable decline (as, for example, falling rate of profit theorists find in the antagonistic binary confrontation between inexorably accumulating capitalists and exploitation-resisting workers which they contend makes a rising organic composition of capital inevitable).

Rather, Marx introduced into social thought a perspective so different from mainstream traditions that even Marxist economists subsequently repressed it. The capitalist class processes he endeavored to theorize are processes of surplus labor performance, appropriation, and distribution, and these are in themselves proper objects for a specifically Marxian theory to focus upon. As Resnick and Wolff describe in the introduction,

We took Marx’s key insights to be (1) that all societies organize a portion of their members to produce a surplus output (a quantum beyond the portions that the producers themselves consume and use up as inputs into production), and (2) that societies differ according to how they arrange the production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus among their members

Therefore class analysis of social life is called for, and class analysis…

became, for us, the exposure of who produced and appropriated surpluses within that society, who received distributions of that surplus from the appropriators, and how the larger social context (its politics, culture, economy and history) both shaped and was shaped by these class processes.

Marxian economics’ potential contribution to social theory thus becomes first of all just this – the introduction into human conversations of an economic aspect of social life which other frameworks can’t or won’t envision: class processes.

The framework has changed traditional understandings of Marx in several ways. It moved open-ended analysis of` the distribution of surplus (not simply its production and appropriation) directly to the analytical foreground. In doing so it cast a new light on Marx’s detailed endeavors, particularly in volume III of Capital, to theorize the class position of agents such as merchants, money-lenders, landlords, supervisory managers and various other contributors to the functioning of capitalist enterprises who receive cuts of surplus value in return for the services they provide. Far from the “subject of secondary interest” Marxist economists had traditionally construed them as (as Baran and Sweezy put it in Monopoly Capital, 112f), modes of surplus utilization other than for capitalist consumption or accumulation become in the new framework in good part the very fabric of the theoretical effort. In several of the essays in this volume (notably 3, 5, and 9), the authors systematize and extend Marx’s forays, analyzing the “subsumed class processes” through which various functionaries receive cuts of surplus value. In several others (notably 10 and 11), the capitalist firm is opened up for analysis, in effect, as something more than simply a surplus value appropriator and capital accumulator. Resnick and Wolff’s firm has become something new in the annals of Marxian economics, a complex and ever-changing distributor of the surplus value it appropriates (and indeed a receiver and distributor of such non-class and subsumed class incomes – from consumer credit provision [non-class], or ownership of stock in other firms [subsumed class], for example – as it might be able to obtain as well).

If Resnick and Wolff attach due importance to Marx’s conceptions of surplus labor appropriation and distribution, they are just as insistent in embracing a second defining characteristic they see in Marx: a radically anti-determinist way of linking class and other economic aspects of life with one another and with non-economic dimensions. Indeed the book starts with these issues rather than with class. Part 1 (“Marxian Philosophy and Epistemology”) presents four particularly compelling essays on causality, complexity, and thinking. Accessible and provocative, they offer probably as stimulating a discussion of Marxian anti-determinism, overdetermination, and epistemology as the authors have yet provided in any one place.

We might note that particular implications of the anti-determinist thinking developed in Part 1 have already appeared in the discussion of class above. Resnick and Wolff’s class theory is different from others in that it concerns processes and within them positions (such as performer or appropriator of surplus value, distributor or receiver of surplus value), rather than identities. Hence people are free to occupy multiple class positions, at any one time and over the course of their lives. Capitalist firms are very likely to have substantial non-capitalist dimensions. And class processes do not solely occur in firms. In an important essay (chapter 8, written with Harriet Fraad), the authors extend their class analysis to the performance of labor within households in the United States (in feudal, ancient, and communist forms), and link recent crises in household surplus labor performance to crises in the US extra-household economy.

More generally, as the reader of Part 1 will find, Resnick and Wolff will not back down from their thoroughgoing commitment to overdetermination, a term they adapted from Althusser, who adapted it from Freud and perhaps Lukács, and which refers to the sorts of mutually constitutive causality the Marxian tradition at its most anti-reductionist has long envisioned. As the authors insist, the world is overdetermined: the very existence of any one process (production of surplus value, for example) is entirely and inescapably constituted by the combined effects of all the other processes (economic, cultural, political and natural) which enable it to occur. Thus no ranking of social processes or entities on the basis of their relative causal importance can be made. If none exists prior to or without the effects of the others, a division between supposedly causal forces on one side and supposedly secondary aspects on the other, pace positivist social science, makes no sense. One faces instead an ever changing world made up of parts or aspects each of which conditions the others and each of which is in turn complexly conditioned.

How then is a thinker to proceed? Resnick and Wolff suggest an understanding of theory construction consonant with their general framework. One should not worry about the impossibility of capturing in thought the infinite complexity of social life: no theory captures being in thought (and both rationalist and empiricist epistemologies are rejected). In the Marxian epistemology the authors propose, thinking is an activity just as much pushed and pulled by other aspects of life as any other activity. Theorists must of necessity proceed by picking initial ways to begin making sense of the complexities. Theories or frameworks differ both by virtue of their initial concerns (or “entry-points”) and by virtue of the particular ways they choose to link their entry points with other aspects of life. In short,

Analysts differ not only in terms of which social and natural processes they single out as their respective entry point, but also in terms of how they connect their entry point processes to all the others that comprise the complex objects of their analyses. Overdetermination implies that the world of theory is a world of difference: differently socialized schools of analysis constructing different understandings that influence and contest with one another. No one theory says or captures it all; none analyzes “best”; none ever has. (56)

That doesn’t mean that theorists shouldn’t struggle to promote what they see as the virtues of their own point of view, however. Equipped with antennae especially attuned to differences in entry point and relational concepts, Resnick and Wolff are exceptionally skilled in sorting out other theorists’ frameworks, identifying weaknesses, and pinpointing how these other frameworks differ from their own preferred overdeterminationist and class-theoretic approach. Along these lines, these essays elaborate telling critiques of neoclassical economics, including, at various points, its concepts of consumer sovereignty (61-63), efficiency (303-305), the rational economic person (267-272), and so on. They probe Keynesian “structuralist” tendencies as they endlessly confront (and sometimes combine with) neoclassical “humanism” in the economics profession (essay 12, written with Jack Amariglio), and analyze why both tendencies refuse to admit heterodox schools within economics’ disciplinary boundaries. They discuss the radical economics and game-theoretic perspective of Bowles and Gintis, another kind of (power-theoretic) humanism as they see it (60-61, 290-293). They neatly and revealingly sort out radical economics traditions (essay 13), and class-theoretic schools (essay 6) of various kinds.

The most gripping drama of the book may lie elsewhere though. What early on troubled even some of its advocates was not the perspective’s suitability for critique, but its suitability for the other kind of job at hand, concrete analysis. Deprived of an essence to depict and resultant effects to trace – faced instead with a world of complexly interacting and ever-changing processes – how does one begin to describe the world? More precisely: might the fear of pursuing essentialist reasoning stop practitioners from pursuing any relatively concrete reasoning at all? Over the course of the twenty years during which these papers were produced, Resnick and Wolff took major steps toward confronting and solving this problem, and a good deal of path-breaking concrete analysis resulted. For a clear statement of their solution see especially essay 4, pages 79-88, wherein Wolff suggests that anti-essentialist theorists are obliged, of necessity, to begin with essentialist argumentation, which is then “negated” both by its inclusion within an explicitly anti-essentialist framework and by a succession of theoretical moments in which, to start with, “a second subset of overdeterminants” of the object of explanation is introduced, its influences on that phenomenon explored, and due recognition made of how that second subset’s “inclusion in the explanation changes the relation posed in the initial essentialism” (83, italics in original). Perhaps fortified by the license for initial simplicity such considerations grant the historical narrator, during these years the authors carried out a class analysis of the Soviet Union and began a class analysis of the United States, important pieces of each endeavor being represented here (essays 15, 16, and 17). Not surprisingly, both are startlingly new.

In terms of its processes of surplus labor performance and distribution, the Soviet Union remained predominantly state capitalist throughout its existence, save for collective farms which did indeed use communal class processes for a period before World War II (essay 16). Thus “(i)n the USSR, arguably the most sustained and ambitious effort to date to move toward a communist class structure, only a very modest and temporary such movement was actually accomplished” (334). With the rise and fall of the Soviet economy, we are then confronted with “the almost tragicomic truth that a century of hot debate over socialism/communism versus capitalism masked a set of oscillations from private to state to private capitalisms (339).” Resnick and Wolff outline an analysis of the Soviet experience along these lines and suggest some ways in which that history also recasts the history of Marxian economic thought, leaving its positive class analytic endeavors, particularly as concerns communist class structures, still at a very early point of development.

The essay which concludes the volume takes up the United States. Entitled “Class, Exploitation, and the Uniqueness of US Capitalism,” it situates US capitalism’s most visible and reliable “success,” its ability to raise worker consumption standards over time, as one aspect of a larger capitalist success story, massive relative surplus value production along the lines Marx himself delineates at length in volume one of Capital. On a scale scarcely matched elsewhere, as they contend, rising productivity in wage-goods-producing industries in the United States has made possible (at least until recently) both rising real wages and a decrease in the fraction of overall labor time needed to produce those wage goods. Thus in Marxian terms the rate of exploitation, or ratio of surplus labor time to necessary labor time, has risen dramatically even while worker consumption standards were climbing. The society which has developed in tandem with these forces has also starkly tended to privatize consumption increases.

If these patterns underlie US capitalism’s success, as Resnick and Wolff argue, they also structure its weakness and failure. Deploying their new willingness to connect and narrate, rather than simply identify and disarticulate, the authors tie social dysfunction and worker suffering – in family life, depleted public arenas, and psychic functioning – to capitalist exploitation, and specifically to its uniquely intense US form. Reminiscent of Baran and Sweezy’s holistic critique in Monopoly Capital (1966) in scope and ambition, the framework is however also an entirely different Marxian vision. It starts from class, rather than from purported patterns of capitalist accumulation, and within the overarching narrative which results, it struggles to retain and deepen a commitment to a fully relational, rather than foundational, conception of human affairs.

Reviewed by Bruce Norton
Department of Economics
San Antonio College

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