Thoughts on the Conference of Internationalist Perspective, 2008


The following document was written by a participant at IP's 2008 conference.

Text/Topic Discussions I only want to make a few comments about some of the topics that were raised with the idea of writing something more integrated in the coming months.

Mac Intosh/ Kinds of Knowledge: The suggestion of Mac Intosh to distinguish two type of knowledge strikes at the very core of Marxist theory and is essential to resolve if indeed IP is to participate in a Renaissance of Marxism. I do not know if I like the formula/distinctions made in the text itself but the impulse to make the distinction I am in full agreement. I think this must be a critically important discussion that will necessarily include discussions of base/superstructure, ideology, class-consciousness, cognitive labor, art, intuition, science, etc. It is interesting to note that no one seems to have a clear definitions of what Marxism is and what exactly is its relationship to truth: science, ideology, philosophy, art? My own sense is that Marxism is one way of apprehending reality while engaging in it directly, poetry is another, music is still another, each of them reveal a truth as formed by man but none of them reveal the totality of truth. There must also be room for intuition as a valid form of knowledge as it is primarily through intuition that the concept of totality is formed. This is too large a discussion to make any valid points here, but I want to suggest that the discussion would be tremendously stimulating and would easily reach beyond the confines of IP.

Immaterial/Cognitive Labor: I read the Vercellone text [Carlo Vercellone, “From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism, in Historical Materialism, Volume 15, Issue 2, 2007] upon return and found it interesting. I agree with Mac’s critique. But, both Vercellone and Mac suggest that the new phase of cognitive labor is a qualitative shift in the development of the law of value (though they draw opposite conclusions, one as a return to formal domination and the other to a deepening of real domination) and they both suggest that the change opens up new possibilities of class struggle using the category of the “general intellect”. This is no small assertion. I look forward to its elaboration. But, neither Mac nor Vercellone actually describe the reality of Immaterial/Cognitive Labor that help us to understand the effect it may have on the development of class-consciousness. How does it differ from skilled labor? I do think there is a shifting that is occurring with the development of cognitive labor and that it is a deepening of real domination. I haven’t thought this through fully but I will suggest the following way to approach the problem. But, in any case, it seems to me without the concept of the production of material signs as the “product” of cognitive labor, Mac Intosh would find it difficult to assert that the growth of cognitive labor is a deepening of the real domination of capital. If the products of cognitive labor remains in the minds of the cognitariat, thus their property, it would be a case for the return to formal domination.

Base/Superstructure: It is true that the base/superstructure formula outlined by Marx himself easily leads to a mechanistic causality, which would reduce Marxist theory to a predictive (positivist) science. It is an unfortunate formula. I would like to suggest another way of expressing the same relationship that I think is more closely related to Marx’s dialectical approach. To begin with the separation between base and superstructure is an analytical devise not one that has a temporal relationship in the real movement in history, in the sense that the base “gives rise” to the “superstructure” in time. There is never a case where the “base” precedes the “superstructure,” which would present a dynamic of direct mono-logical causality. This may be the problem that Mac Intosh seeks to overcome with Althuser’s concept of “over-determination.” ( a theory of which I am not familiar but can imagine that in the end it states that everything is influenced by everything simultaneously, which is true, but does not analytically take us closer to the inner logic of historical movement that Marx sought to outline with the base/superstructure formula. But I will wait to understand this concept better.) If we substitute the concept of mediation for B/S we might use the idea that the Base=First Order Mediation and Superstructure=Second Order Mediation. The first form of mediation between man and nature is ontologically necessary and the second is historically contingent. They are NOT separable in the REAL movement of history but are LOGICALLY distinct. I will give an example of this dynamic that I gave verbally at the conference but had developed elsewhere.

It was this general theoretical problem that I was interested in exploring; a problem that Marx resolved within two different orders of mediation between man and nature. That is, human activity that is ontologically necessary and activity that is historically contingent. But the two orders of mediation suggested by Marx are not to be understood as two different activities, the one necessary the other unnecessary. Technological mastery of large irrigation projects, for instance, represents historically accumulated labor that necessarily mediates the relationship between man and nature in his self-reproduction in a very specific manner, it also represents accumulated capital, and thus mediates relationships between men, but only under the general conditions of capitalism; not as a different activity, but as two sides of the same activity, the one as accumulated labor, the other as accumulated capital. Without the important distinction between the two orders of mediation, Marxism becomes nothing less than a mechanistic and completely deterministic social science, little different from Positivism.

This approach will give us a far stronger analytical tool to evaluate contemporary capitalism, including technological/scientific developments. For example, the dominant characteristic of the Second Order Mediation under the conditions of capitalism is the prevalence of the law of value. Therefore, any form of mediation under capitalism that exists and continues to exist as a direct result of the law of value is historically contingent, including certain scientific theories. Those forms of mediation that would necessarily exist after the elimination of the law of value are possible First Order Mediations. What necessarily follows from this formulation is how to understand the nature and production of ideology and correspondingly the nature of Marxist theory itself. Naturally, this is a long discussion and I will attempt to develop the idea more coherently as soon as time permits.

Left Communist Lineage: The suggestion that IP abandon its claim that it represents a continuation of the work of the Communist Left is in my opinion not one that has merit. I understand the need to establish an organization that is distinct from the past Left on the basis of a better understanding of Marxist theory but I would suggest that this is a secondary issue. More importantly for the Communist Left is their revolutionary stance not their theoretical understanding of Marxist Theory. The revolutionary stance of an organization is the lineage that I would want to be associated with, otherwise it seems more the impulse of academic quibbling. Gramsci once wrote: the man who wills something strongly enough will discover the tools necessary for the realization of his will. Our will is revolutionary our tool is Marxism and where it counted the Communist Left defended a Marxism that had the ability of modify its use in the spirit of a man who wills something strongly.

Technology/Environment: I thought the conference text was a thorough development of the problems of Tech/Environment and had the merit of pushing the issues to a deeper position. I wanted to add only that there should be a method of evaluating the scientific/technological developments that do not assume simply “bad use” by capitalism. I would suggest the Law of Value as the primary criteria with addition of other criteria, in the case of food production perhaps caloric exchange. But, again, this is a vast subject to develop. We cannot simply say all would be better with the elimination of capitalism without developing an approach to the problem. [A revised version of the conference text will appear in Internationalist Perspective, number 50.]

B. York


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