Marx – Darwin – Weber

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew,

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew

It is often noted that Marx was a great admirer of Darwin, but it has been rarely explored what he actually took from him into his own theory, let alone put to productive use by his followers. There are exceptions, though. Mark Warren (1987: 258) shows that Marx thought of technological progress as well as cultural change in terms of a Darwinian mechanism in which an environment (natural or human-made) poses survival conditions to innovations. The difference, of course, is that the way that the variations that then are either selected or de-selected quasi-naturally come about in different ways:

‘The source of innovation and change comes from human beings who more or less intentionally create new ways of doing things, for any variety of reasons. Marx refers to this process as ‘invention’ (Erfindung). He places the term in quotation marks when referring to natural processes to indicate that creativity is intentional in humans, but not in nature. […] For human inventions, the environment consists in existing technologies and skills (forces of production), together with various social relations of production. This social and technological environment selects for certain inventions while condemning others to obsolescence. According to this interpretation, for example, in a capitalist society an invention or skill can survive and be transmitted to future generations only if it meets with the selective criteria of Marx’s base-superstructure model – assuming, of course, that the model correctly describes the constraints and possibilities of the social and natural environment.’


From Elective Affinities and Selection to Base/Superstructure and Back – an Attempt at Salvaging Concepts

„Es ist mit den Geschäften wie mit dem Tanze; Personen, die gleichen Schritt halten, müssen sich unentbehrlich werden; ein wechselseitiges Wohlwollen muß notwendig daraus entstehen…“ [It is with business as it is with dance; persons who are in step with each other, will inevitably become indispensible for each other. A mutual benevolence will arise with necessity …]  J.W. von Goethe, Wahlverwandtschaften

 [Presentation at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association, April 2014 - and I'm still working on the full paper...]

In this talk I will venture a suggestion how to link what has come to be called the “Weber theses” and the Marxian base/superstructure theorem. I will follow Max Weber’s own proposition that where capitalist mentalities can no longer be explained by direct reference to a Protestant theological background, Darwinian selection by market forces in a now fully established capitalist economic system would perpetuate that once religiously inspired mentality.

As he says in the conclusion to his long essay “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.” Why we are forced to do so, Weber leaves to historical materialism to explain; using Darwin as a hinge. But that elegant solution has become a cul-de-sac since the base/superstructure theorem has suffered the fate of either complete dismissal (Steven Lukes called it a “dead, static, architectural metaphor” ready for the scrap heap), or at least significant watering down in academic post-Marxism as in Laclau and Mouffe’s Sorelian turn. (more…)

money and recognition (an assessment of now – from 70 years ago)

This passage from Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1944 Dialektik der Aufklärung sounds very much as if written as a comment on the views of the of the world’s financial centre’s mayor.

‚Hierzulande gibt es keinen Unterschied zwischen dem wirtschaftlichen Schicksal und den Menschen selbst. Keiner ist etwas anderes als sein Vermögen, sein Einkommen, seine Stellung, seine Chancen. Die wirtschaftliche Charaktermaske und das, was darunter ist, decken sich im Bewußtsein der Menschen, den Betroffenen eingeschlossen, bis aufs kleinste Fältchen. Jeder ist so viel wert wie er verdient, jeder verdient so viel er wert ist. Was er ist, erfährt er durch die Wechselfälle seiner wirtschaftlichen Existenz. Er kennt sich nicht als ein anderes. Hatte die materialistische Kritik der Gesellschaft dem Idealismus einst entgegengehalten, daß nicht das Bewußtsein das Sein, sondern das Sein das Bewußtsein bestimme, daß die Wahrheit über die Gesellschaft nicht in ihren idealistischen Vorstellungen von sich selbst, sondern in ihrer Writschaft zu finden sei, so hat das zeitgemäße Selbstbewußtsein solchen Idealismus mittlerweile abgeworfen.‘ (Horkheimer/Adorno1969: 220)

‘In this country there is no difference between their economic fate and the human beings themselves. Nobody is anything but their wealth, their income, their position, their opportunities. In people’s minds, including that of the wearers themselves, the economic character mask and the face behind it are identical down to the last little wrinkle. Each is worth exactly what they earn, each earns exactly what they are worth. What they are, they learn through the vagaries of their economic existence. They don’t know themselves as anything different. While materialist social critique used to confront idealism with the claim that it was not consciousness that determined being, but being that determined consciousness and that the truth about society was not to be found in its idealist self image, but in the economy;  contemporary consciousness has discarded such idealism.’ (my translation)

It is also, as I argue here, the psychological effect on the basis of which Marx’s labour theory of value regains plausibility as a moral anthropology of capitalist exchange. In effect the capitalist market here performs the exact same role that it does, in Weber’s ideal-typical conception, for the Calvinist believer in predestination. It is the field of probation where divine signs (in the form of financial success) reveal one’s predetermined state of grace. But while the ‘invisible hand’, as which Adam Smith visualised the agency of the market awarding those signs, still seems to be doing its job, it no longer does so as the hand of God. The worthiness acknowledged by market recognition is completely secularised, but still has a religious feel to it. This is why ‘ability’, ‘talent’, ‘IQ’ etc. are reified and deified into equivalents of divine grace that cannot but attract financial recognition.

The problem – the reason why Boris Johnson’s revelations caused a minor scandal – is that without the theological underpinnings, the acceptability of this world view rests very much on the perceived plausibility of the distributive outcomes. Social psychologist Michael Lerner has shown that the fact that we want to live in a just world normally finds its expression in us committing to a belief in a just world, supporting counterfactual assumptions like that yes, in most cases people who earn more do so because they are cleverer and because the work harder (even if we should know from experience that this is not that often the case). But you can overstretch – and in the current crisis, we may well have reached a breaking point. At least Randall Collins seems to think so when he starts his speculations about an impending revolution with the observation that the first reward for proven intelligence constituted by a college degree is… a huge pile of debt.

Horkheimer, Max/Adorno, Theodor W. (1969) [1944]: Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

the spirit of capitalism and fordist daydreaming

Benjamin Franklin’s advice to a young tradesman has famously been used by Max Weber to exemplify what he called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ which he (Weber) summarises thus

‘Sondern vor allem ist das “summum bonum” dieser “Ethik”: der Erwerb von Geld und immer mehr Geld, unter strengster Vermeidung alles unbefangenen Genießens, so gänzlich aller eudämonistischen oder gar hedonistischen Gesichtspunkte entkleidet, so rein als Selbstzweck dedacht, daß es als etwas gegenüber dem „Glück“ oder dem „Nutzen“ des einzelnen Individuums jedenfalls gänzlich Transzendentes und schlechthin Irrationales erscheint. Der Mensch ist auf das  Erwerben als Zweck seines Lebens, nicht mehr das Erwerben auf den Menschden als Mittel zum Zweck der Befriedigung seiner materiellen Lebensbedürfnisse bezogen.‘ (Weber 1920: 36) ‘In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of  the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.’ (Weber 1930:53)

Typically, Weber qualifies that this does not ‘claim that everything which could be understood as pertaining to that spirit is contained in’ his Franklin extract thus summarised – but he is quite clear that this here is not only the essence of Franklin’s doctrine, but the capitalist spirit as such: it is the only example of an expression of that spirit he gives. The proposition that this ethos was born out of the Reformation, the suggestion of a causal relation between religion and economic development have been subject to relentless criticism and counter-criticism (in the Anglophone social sciences the debate was kicked off by Robertson’s 1933 Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism which was met with a refutation by Weber’s translator and future world leading sociologist Talcott Parsons). But his statement what constitutes the “spirit of capitalism” went relatively unchallenged. For example the Marxist historian and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel (1924), in what then was more or less the official Communist counter attack against Weber, does state that surely, different stages and different segments of capitalism require different mentalities, but he asserts that the one thing that runs through all of it is perfectly expressed by precisely the passages that Weber quotes. (more…)

base/superstructure 1 1/2: totalitarian tendencies in gramsci ?!?

In my previous post on Basis/Überbau I casually mention Gramsci’s totalitarian tendencies. This needs some further explanation, especially since I will use some aspects of his reconceptionalisation (as struttura/superstrutture) when arguing for the retention of this much maligned metaphor.

Gramsci tries to solve the old problem of dualism of base/superstructure (which he rejects as an instance of Croce misinterpreting Marx and Engels) and the related problem of simultaneity of determination “in the last instance” of the superstructure by the base on the one hand and the reality/efficacy of the superstructure which affects the base on the other. His solution is of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it type: he emphatically makes space for political and intellectual activity and assigns transformative powers to them while not giving up on ultimate determination by the development of the forces, modes and relations of production. I will (in a future post) argue that to make the theorem of base/superstructure productive it is crucial to resist this temptation of forging them into (in Gramsci’s terminology) an “historic bloc”. In this post I will make the case that not resisting this temptation is outright dangerous as it is conducive to totalitarian politics.