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Ancients: A Marxian Theory of Self-exploitation

S. J. Gabriel

Chapter 1: The Status of Ancients in Marxist Discourse


1.1 -- Introduction

This book is an attempt to break new ground within Marxian theory through the elaboration of a new set of concepts: the concepts of the ancient fundamental and subsumed class processes, self-exploitation and associated concepts deployed in constructing the conditions of existence of self-exploitation. In producing this new set of concepts, we will deploy an already elaborated set of concepts associated with a particular version of Marxian theory. The Marxian theory which serves as our means of theoretical production (and which, like all theories, is in a state of constant transformation), is based upon the concepts and critical reading of Marx forged into a unified theoretical framework by Stephen A. Resnick, Richard D. Wolff, and the other members of the school of Marxian thought they have founded. This school of Marxian thought, distinguished in part by a theoretical vocabulary borrowed and modified from the French philosopher Louis Althusser, is most closely associated in the current period with the Association of Economic and Social Analysis (AESA) based a the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the AESA's quarterly journal, Rethinking Marxism.

The theoretical framework prevalent within AESA, and deployed in this text contains a radical epistemological position in which the very process we are currently involved in, i.e. the process of producing new knowledge, is conceived as a direct product of all the other social and natural processes coincident with this production. The dialectic does not, however, stop there. This theoretical production, including the process of interpretation and evaluation of the works of Marx and of other theorists, is simultaneously influential upon these other social and natural processes. Thus, this work of theory is a unique, dynamic and changing product of the rest of the universe and is a unique, dynamic and changing influence upon the rest of the Universe.

What are the consequences of this epistemological position? One of the consequences is that this and all intellectual work has immediate political, cultural and economic consequences. This is both a blessing and a burden. It is a blessing in that, within our theoretical framework, we do not have to lose sleep over whether or not our theoretical efforts will have any effect upon the rest of the world. The intellectual life is no more or less significant than any other and theoretical work is no more or less important than any other work. It is a burden for these same reasons. We realize full well that our productive efforts will have effects and, therefore, we must be concerned about these effects.

This consciousness of the constitution and role of knowledge production is partial explanation for our deployment of Marxian theory, as opposed to alternative entry-points into social analysis. The Marxian entry-point into social analysis is the concept of class. This entry point concept of class is defined as the economic processes of the appropriation and distribution of surplus labor (or, analogously, of the surplus fruit of labor). As raw material in theoretical construction, this concept of class fills an important vacancy in theoretical work. It is our position that the absence of this particular concept of class in other theoretical frameworks directly impacts upon the quality of life in determinate societies and upon the potentialities towards which the dynamic of change pushes such societies. We further believe that the presence of this concept of class and of elaborated concepts of specific fundamental class processes (unique ways of performing and appropriating surplus labor) will positively impact upon attempts to expand the democratic rights of human beings, among other desirable results. That is, when we produce a knowledge of class, this knowledge changes people in such a way that their actual and potential behavior changes. We believe these changes would include interventions into the political, cultural, economic and natural environment within which they live such that the quality of their lives would be enhanced. If this is so, then our theoretical work is part of an effort to push societies towards an improved quality of life and an expansion of the form and content of democracy.

The concepts that are the focus of our theoretical construction, the ancient fundamental and subsumed class processes and self-exploitation, are related to a variety of concepts present in Marxian and non-Marxian literature. These related concepts include various definitions of "petty commodity production," "independent commodity production," "petty bourgeois production," "simple commodity production," and "self-employment." It is our purpose to not only elaborate our own vision of the unique way of life embodied in these concepts but to contrast our vision to that posed by the theoretical frameworks (including other Marxian theories) within which these alternative definitions arise. In doing so, we deploy the previously introduced epistemological and to-be-discussed ontological innovations that were formulated by Marx and further elaborated by a long line of Marxian theoreticians, including Mao Tse Tung, Louis Althusser, Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst, and the membership of AESA.

Most past conceptions of self-employment of direct producers (we shall henceforth use the term "ancient producer" to refer to self-employed, self-exploiting direct producers) have regarded this unique way of appropriating wealth as of only minor consequence (if even that) in world history. This way of life has often been conceived, in teleological fashion, as simply a precursor to the growth of capitalist exploitation. In yet other conceptions, it is viewed as a sort of "residual" class phenomenon existing in the interstices of societies dominated by other "more fundamental" methods of appropriating the surplus fruit of labor. This book will attempt to shatter such teleological and essentialist conceptions of ancient producers and to present a fresh way of analyzing the social consequences of self-exploitation, including the potential consequences upon transitions from one type of society (in class terms) to another. In doing so, teleological and essentialist conceptions will be displaced by a vision of the dynamic influence of the ancient fundamental class process upon all other aspects of society and the similarly dynamic influence of these other aspects upon the existence and reproduction or non-existence of self-exploitation.

This task is of crucial importance to Marxian social analysis, as well as other forms of practice, in so far as any effort to understand or to transform concrete social formations depends upon our ability to make sense of the various social and natural processes, including the different fundamental class processes, that comprise determinate social formations. Indeed, we use the term social formation to draw attention to our vision of society as an overdetermined gestalt comprised of complex and contradictory social and natural processes, including different fundamental class processes, whose interaction gives to the social formation its unique path of change.

Not many Marxian theorists would argue that it is possible to produce an adequate understanding of social change in the absence of a developed concept of capitalism, no matter how this particular way of life is defined within alternative Marxian frameworks. Nevertheless, many of these same Marxian theorists do not find it problematic to produce elaborated visions of social change in the absence of a developed concept of self-exploitation. Yet, how many of these Marxian theorists would argue that the self-employment of direct producers does not exist or that there is no need for distinct categories defining such producers as distinct from direct producers who are not self-employed? Indeed, it is likely that most theorists, whether Marxian or non-Marxian, would accept the presence, perhaps even the large scale presence, of self-employed direct producers in many, if not most, societies. How is it then that ancient producers can be accepted as a concrete phenomenon in the Universe and yet simultaneously be given little or no weight in the dynamic of social change?

This seeming contradiction is explicable only within the context of the alternative epistemological and ontological frameworks of the theorists who adopt such a position. This leads us to two related points of difference between these alternative epistemological and ontological frameworks and our own. Firstly, it is quite possible for a Marxian or non-Marxian theorist to accept the presence, even the large scale presence, of ancient producers without also accepting the importance of an elaborated concept of self-exploitation operative within their frameworks. How is this so? It has to do with the underlying ontology deployed by these theorists. On the one hand, the theorist may accept the presence of ancient producers (referred to by any of a large variety of labels). On the other hand, he or she may conclude that this presence is of little or no significance. And there's the rub. The belief that it is possible for self-exploitation to exist as a concrete aspect of the Universe and yet be insignificant is a statement about how the Universe is constituted. It is a statement of how the Universe behaves: a phenomenon, such as self-exploitation, can exist in conjunction with other phenomena and yet be of little or no consequence upon the constitution of these other aspects of reality.

In this way of thinking, if we wish to answer certain questions about the constitution of some aspect of reality, we need only isolate the set of finite determinants which autonomously determine the constitution of that aspect of reality. Each aspect of reality is, therefore, underdetermined, i.e. autonomously determined by a finite portion of the rest of reality. This fraction of the Universe that serves as the determinant of the given object of analysis is less than unity. Therefore, some remaining fraction of the Universe represents excess information, i.e. underdetermination implies that some aspects of reality are insignificant to the process of producing an understanding of certain other aspects of reality. By deploying such an ontological framework, it becomes possible to assume that certain political, cultural, economic or natural objects of analysis are underdetermined in such a manner tha the social phenomenon of self-exploitation is outside the set of autonomous determinants of such objects of analysis. The social phenomenon of self-exploitation becomes excess information in any analysis of these underdetermined objects. From this standpoint, it is unnecessary to include an elaborated concept of self-exploitation within the theoretical matrix in order to make sense of these objects.

This is an idea which we believe to be fundamentally opposed to the ontological framework established by Marx and is certainly opposed to the ontology deployed herein. In the past, the concept of dialectical materialism was exclusively used to refer to the different ontological strategy of Marx vis-a-vis those theorists for whom the Universe is underdetermined. More recently, however, the recognitiion that the term dialectical materialism had taken on a variety of interpretations, not all of which are consistent with our view that it refers to anti-underdeterminationism, has led to adoption of the term overdetermination.

Overdetermination implies that no aspect of reality is insignificant in the shaping of any other aspect of reality. That is, nothing is without an effect. On the other hand, since each aspect of reality is uniquely constituted by all other aspects, then its path of change must also be unique, and its influence upon all other aspects must similarly be unique. The dialectic of overdetermination is the dialectic of ceaseless change, of the constant pushes and pulls of the unique influences htat come together to constitute each and every aspect of reality. These unique influences upon each and every aspect of reality are not assumed to work harmoniously but, rather, create contradictions. Thus, the presence of the ancient fundamental class process within any given social formation implies the existence of unique contradictions associated with the interaction of this determinate fundamental class process and other social and natural processes. The contradictions bred in this interaction propel the social formation in question down a uniquely overdetermined path of change. This is a very different way of seeing the world than is embodied in the framework of those theorists for whom self-exploitation, even if recognized as a concrete phenomeon, is conceived to be of insignificant consequence.

Secondly, there are those who accept the significance of self-exploitation, but do so in a theoretical framework within which self-exploitation is itself underdetermined, i.e. the existence of self-exploitation may be reduced to some finite set of essential determinants. Theorists who operate in this manner produce concepts of self-exploitation that are limited to a definite and unchanging set of conditions of existence, e.g. certain forms of property or a given type of state. To understand the coalescence of these finite and essential elements is, then, to understand the existence and dynamic of the ancient form of surplus labor appropriation.

In some versions of this latter form of essentialism, the conditions of existence of self-exploitation may be reduced to a set of theorized economic aspects of reality. This form of essentialism is typically referred to as economic determinism because it is economic aspects of reality that exclusively determine some other aspect or aspects of reality. Similarly, the existence of self-employment may be reduced to a set of political determinants (political determinism) or cultural determinants (cultural determinism) or natural determinants (natural determinism). The method of theorizing the reasons why individuals might work for themselves on an individualized basis thus becomes linked to the process of specifying or discovering the finite and unique set of determinants. The deployment of this vision of reality in non-theoretical social practice, such as in political organizing, is often manifest by a myopic focus upon these specified determinants and a dogmatic rejection of the possibility that explanations other than the theorized chain of cause and effect might be plausible.

This underdetermined theoretical Universe provides the setting for a radically different methodology than that deployed by Marx. In this essentialist methodology, the dialectic stops. The deterministic aspects of reality are catalogued or reasoned out, cause and effect are separated out from the bolus of reality, and the final truth is set forth. As we understand him, Marx's anti-essentialist methodology was grounded in the dialectical interplay of his theory of social life and the objects of that theory, neither of which were reducible to the other or to any finite and autonomous set of influences. Marx's radical theoretical departure was precisely his rejection of the notion of the existence of any absolute truth that might be uncovered, either through the "facts" of the material world (empiricism) or in the "logic" of pure reason (rationalism), and his understanding of theory as a part of the overdetermined, contradictory, and ever changing Universe that served as the object of theory. Thus, Marx's own concepts were in a constant state of change as he elaborated them, added new concepts, and recognized the constant and contradictory state of change inthe world he sought to influence with his theory.

In his attempt to understand why capitalist exploitation exists and is reproduced over time and space, Marx did not reduce the conditions of existence of this unique form of appropriation of the surplus fruit of labor to any finite and essential set of deterministic elements. Rather, he attempted to demonstrate the complexity of capitalism and the interrelatedness of changes in all social and natural phenomena in conditioning the existence of capitalism. That is, Marx's concept of capitalist exploitation is an overdetermined concept. As an overdetermined process, the dialectic of theoretical construction can never cease. It can have no end-point. The method of constructing a knowledge of capitalism must necessarily be incomplete and always in progress.

Our adoption of this methodology and its associated epistemology and ontology implies that our theorization of the conditions of existence of the ancient fundamental class process must be no less complex. Therefore, a point of significant difference between past conceptions of the ancient form of surplus labor appropriation and that of self-exploitation contained herein is that our theorization of the complex overdetermined existence of the ancient fundamental class process must necessarily be incomplete and preliminary.

It also follows from deployment of the concept of overdetermination in our construction of the concept of self-exploitation that the presence of the ancient fundamental class process changes everything in society, including other fundamental class processes coincident with it. Thus, even those Marxian theorists whose interests rest exclusively with analyzing capitalist development in concrete social formations should not ignore the unique effects of the ancient fundamental class process. Indeed, from our theoretical perspective we perceive a direct connection between the presence of essentialized concepts of self-exploitation within most versions of Marxian theory and the inability of Marxian political activists to achieve many of their objectives. The tendency to diminish the significance of self-exploitation, whether through the absence of an elaborated concept or the presence of an essentialized (underdetermined) concept, colors Marxian writings and politics with enormous consequences.

Today, in the United States, revolutionary changes in the class structure of communities continue. On the one hand, this text does not directly challenge the view, held by most of my Marxist colleagues, that this change, in class terms, is primarily towards increased prevalence of capitalism. This is a bit of knowledge that is assumed more often than it has been subjected to analysis (which is one fo the consequences of an underdetermined theoretical framework). On the other hand, this text will provide additional tools with which to carry out an analysis of the class composition and dynamic of determinate social formations. Indeed, it is a direct implication of our epistemological framework that whether one's interests are in the social changes taking place in China or Zimbabwe or in South Dakota or Arkansas, then the absence of a complex understanding of the influence of the ancient fundamental class process upon the overall path of social change (and vice versa) will limit one's analysis and the presence of such a concept will alternatively enrich such analysis. Our theoretical work provides for the delicious possibility that among the various social formations of the world are to be found ancient social formations, not just in some distant past but in the present and future. Such ancient social formations, in which this to-be-theorized ancient fundamental class process prevails, would provide Marxian theorists with a new object of analysis, discussion and disagreement.

Thus, it should be clear that the presence of this understanding of the ancient fundamental class process and of the existence of social formations wihtin which self-exploitation prevails would influence the world view of the theorist as certainly as does its absence. But concepts are not just the tool of theoretical constructions. The presence of this new way of viewing the world would influence others, as well. For example, it is a direct political implication of our ontological framework that the absence of this complex understanding of the role of self-exploitation in social change may stymie the efforts of those involved in building political coalitions directed at the transformation of concrete social formations in such a manner as to democratize the distribution of social wealth. This may be seen, in part, in the failure of Marxian political activists to gain such support within rural America, where the struggle to maintain self-exploitation against the tide of growing capitalist exploitation may be most intense. the presence, then, of this concept should contribute to their success.

If we are to produce an overdetermined vision of the universe of self-exploitation, then a starting point is to return to Marx and to analyze the bits and pieces of his conception of the constitution of self-exploitation. The raw material for our construction of this new vision of self-exploitation and of the possibilities for ancient social formations comes directly out of our reading of the concepts and context of Marx's theoretical work. Our constructed vision of self-exploitation comes directly out of his vision of class and its associated epistemology and ontology. Marx provides us with a methodology through which we may construct and analyze various methods of appropriating surplus labor. This methodology was brought to bear most decisively on this project of making sense of a specific form of exploitation---capitalist exploitation---and the capitalist society within which capitalist exploitation prevailed.

But in making sense of capitalist society and its associated capitalist fundamental class process, Marx found it necessary to compare and contrast capitalism with non-capitalist societies, including ancient society, and the conditions of existence of these non-capitalist societies, in so far as such conditions were also the conditions of the non-existence of capitalism. But Marx never attempted to elaborate any of these non-capitalist forms of surplus appropriation or analyze the social formations within which determinate non-capitalist forms of surplus appropriation prevailed. As Marx saw them, the conditions of existence of non-capitalist societies, serve as the anti-thesis to the conditions of existence of capitalist society. This must be kept in mind as we conduct our theoretical exploration of the status of the latent ancient fundamental class process within Marx's writings.


Copyright 1989 Satya J. Gabriel.  All rights reserved.


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