Overdetermination and anti-essentialism, within and beyond Marxism

I have recently been reading some of the work of two American Marxist scholars, Richard Wolff, and the late Stephen Resnick. Both are committed to a form of Marxist theory which promotes the concept of overdetermination and an anti-essentialist epistemology. Drawing on Hegel‘s dialectics, which influenced Marx himself, and Althusser, who introduced overdetermination into Marxist theory via Freud, they show how the essentialism of most theory, in economics and elsewhere, represents a lack of self-consciousness on the part of the theorist. In other words, by producing theory in which the causes of particular phenomena are held to be simple and narrow (one or a few causes leading to one effect), they ignore the complexity and potentially infinite causes of reality. Resnick and Wolff put forward overdetermination as a more useful and honest account of the processes that we study, in whatever field, in their case economics. For them, society and the economy can be described as a set of processes, each of which determines and is determined by every other process in existence, whether natural, economic, political or cultural. Each process is therefore both a cause and an effect of every other process. Thus they describe a world of complexity and of open systems. Mono-causal explanations of phenomena represent an essentialist epistemology, while their world of infinite complexity is described as anti-essentialist.

Although it would seem that a world described by overdeterminist processes is impossible to analyse, Resnick and Wolff take a particular theoretical entry point in their complex description as a starting point for analysis and proceed through their argument, to the logical exit point. In this way there is an essentialism drawn from their complex theoretical schema, but unlike much essentialist theoretical discourse, they do it very consciously, admitting that every theory is only a partial description of reality and has a particular outcome in mind, in their case the political one of challenging the class formation of a capitalist society, with a view to replacing it with socialism.

This self-consciousness is important, and illustrates that all theory is subject to the values and politics of the theorist, which are acted upon unconsciously, or out of learned habit. Thus all theoretical explanations, or stories or models even, of reality, remain partial and subject to bias. Further to this, the ‘truths’ which are the outcome of such explanations, are necessarily partial and incomplete. They are subject to revision as the thinker or theorist takes them up once again, and acts upon new information that he may not have been aware of before. As the reality of the world evolves, so too must the theory. Therein lies the subjectivity of all social theory, which interacts with its counterpart, the objective reality. The two can be viewed as connected, with the mind of the thinker and observer perceiving and analysing, in a partial way, the material world.

The world can be viewed in this way of thinking as a continuously evolving set of processes, rather than as a set of fixed objects, acting upon the mind of the human observer. In turn, the human will can act upon the partial reality he or she perceives, changing that reality, and creating a new reality, social or otherwise. The human being can itself also be thought of as a set of evolving processes, natural, political, economic etc, and as the site of all other external processes, which act to overdetermine him or her.

So far, so good. Resnick and Wolff are committed Marxists, wishing to encourage a revolution in society, and a transformation from capitalism to socialism or communism, in a form quite different, one should note, from the twentieth century attempts at socialism around the world. They use the concept of overdetermination to describe their version of Marx’s dialectical materialism. But this overdetermination need not imply a fully Marxist approach to theorising society and economy. Resnick and Wolff take class to be their entry point of analysis, and use it as a determining factor in all other non-class processes. These latter in turn determinine or overdetermine the class processes, so that the analysis remains anti-essentialist. No one factor is the ultimate cause of reality, and all truths are relative and partial (this shows the post-modernist influence on the two authors). But in this conscious way of analysing reality, we could just as easily apply the concept of overdetermination to other schools of thought, with a different aim and outcome in mind, such as the Keynesian or neo-classical schools of economics. These systems of thought would be transformed by over-determination, no doubt, but as they would be applied in a more conscious way, they would be improved upon. Theorists of these different schools would therefore be forced to be more open about the ends of the policy implications of their respective theoretical arguments.

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One thought on “Overdetermination and anti-essentialism, within and beyond Marxism

  1. Pingback: Marxism across academic study | The Political Economy of Development

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