What’s Theory Got to Do With It?
This is not a book about film, contrary to its title, but a book about a way of seeing social and economic relationships differently. Film is just a convenient vehicle to use to pursue our analysis. It is an entry point, a doorway, into an understanding of the processes that have shaped and continue to shape the world (and remember that we are an integral aspect of the world, not separate from it). This process of shaping and being shaped by is what we call overdetermination.
Overdetermination implies that no aspect of reality is insignificant in the shaping of any other aspect of reality. In other words, everything is significant: all processes (whether political, economic, cultural, or environmental) have an effect on all other processes. The dialectic of overdetermination is the dialectic of ceaseless change, of the constant pushes and pulls of the unique influences that come together to constitute each and every aspect of reality.
Freud used the concept “overdetermination” in his analysis of dreams to refer to the way in which the content of dreams was not simplistically determined by a finite set of life-events, but was, rather, the product of the totality or gestalt of life experiences. The formation of our consciousness and unconsciousness is the culmination of the unique interaction of more social and natural conditions than could ever be named or identified. In other words, everything, absolutely everything that we have experienced in life has molded our consciousness and unconsciousness.
Film is a medium through which ideas are communicated. Film is an illusion trying to mirror a specific reality or set of realities. Many of us grow up viewing film as a window from which to look out at the world and make sense of it. The images and stories projected into our minds help to form our consciousness about various social and natural relationships. The ideas transmitted through film become part of the knowledge base from which one understands the world. These ideas help form the consciousness as well as the unconsciousness of the individual, shaping her perception of not only herself, but of social relationships, in a more general sense. This is why it is so important to critically examine films. Ideas are transmitted in the blink of an eye, so to speak, instantaneously lodging themselves in the mind---oftentimes unexamined. By critically examining film, one can attempt to grasp some of the intricacies of social relationships and the effects these relationships have upon society and the individual.
One possible entry point in examining films is economic processes. Many films portray economic processes as explicit determinants of the social life of the characters and the larger society. Of course, in “real life” economics is always significant, always an influence on our lives. Thus, we can use film to better understand economic processes, as well as to grapple with the difficulty of representing, in film, the effects of such processes.
How does one make sense of economic processes, whether in the complexity of real life or in the art of film? There are two competing theories in economics which we will use to make sense of the economic processes conveyed through film---neoclassical and post-structuralist Marxian economic theories.
Post-Structuralist Marxian Theory
In post-structuralist Marxian theory the concept of class is utilized to examine the social and environmental processes which interact to shape a social formation in unique ways. In order to understand class, we will use the conceptual language that has been developed by Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, two noted economists from the University of Massachusetts and the founders of the journal Rethinking Marxism. Resnick and Wolff’s reading of Marx leads them to avoid defining class as a noun, as is the common practice. For Resnick and Wolff, the issue that Marx focused upon in his major theoretical works (Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Grundisse) was not a struggle between classes but a struggle over class as a social process (the term process implies a continually changing phenomenon---a phenomenon that only exists in motion---a verb). For this and other reasons they use the term class process in describing the unique type of social interaction that Marx was concerned about in his social scientific work.
What is class process? Firstly, Marx understood that society depended, among other processes, upon human beings physically transforming raw materials and other material inputs (machinery and other products of past labor) into new and useful products. Food has to be grown and prepared. Cloth has to be created and clothing made. Construction materials and housing have to be made. And so on. For Marx this productive effort was general to all societies, irrespective of the existence and/or type of class process. All human beings do not, however, engage in activities resulting in such useful products. And even for those who are so engaged, they may, under certain conditions, consume such products in excess of the value of what they produce. Thus, under certain social conditions it is necessary for some workers to produce output in excess of the output they take as compensation for their efforts. Marx and others have defined this extra work as surplus labor. The extra product created by surplus labor was defined as surplus product. And the social value of the surplus product (as typically determined in market exchange relationships) was defined as surplus value. Now we have all of the ingredients necessary to a relatively strict definition of class process. Class process is the social process that results in 1) human beings performing surplus labor, 2) the surplus products (of this labor) being appropriated and 3) the distribution of the surplus value (in surplus product form or in monetary form) to other human beings.
What distinguishes one class process from one another? In other words, how can we distinguish capitalism from feudalism or feudalism from communism? All these are class processes in so far as they involve the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus products. The difference between the various class processes is the particular social arrangement that results in the worker performing the surplus labor and the appropriator taking possession of the fruits (the product or value) of that surplus labor. And these social arrangements have been variable over time and place. Marx spent a great many pages attempting to specify the historical process that brought into being the social arrangement that is peculiar to capitalism. It was the primary purpose behind the writing of the three volumes of Capital, his best know social scientific work (although less well known than his shorter more polemical Communist Manifesto). In a nutshell, the social arrangement that distinguishes the capitalist class process from other class processes is the existence of a free market in labor power (the capacity to work) under conditions where it is possible for someone other than the actual laborers/direct producers to take possession of the fruits of their labor. This definition tells us that capitalism, if it is to exist and be reproduced over time, requires a particular type of market, a free market in the buying and selling of labor power, and a particular type of ownership, the ownership of the fruits of the labor of an employed wage laborer by someone other than that employed wage laborer.
The Capitalist Class Process
Capitalism is not reducible to either markets or ownership. There must be a free market in labor power, meaning that potential laborers must have the freedom to seek employment (for a wage) in an environment where, under normal conditions, there are choices about possible employers. There must be a political and cultural environment within which it is possible for someone other than the worker who created a product to take ownership of that product. The worker is paid a wage, embodying a certain amount of economic value, in exchange for her giving up the right to own the fruits of her labor. She accepts this contract willingly and retains the right (the freedom) to quit her employment and seek employment elsewhere. That’s it. That is capitalism. This simple but powerful definition provides all that is necessary to determine if the capitalist class process exists under concrete social conditions. We do not need to know who rules the state or whether voting plays a role in determining the composition of an existing legislative body. We do not need to know if there are flexible exchange rates. We do not need to know if there are gun laws. We do not need to know whether people in the country speak Japanese or English. Of course all of these topics might be useful in any attempt to tell the story of how capitalism came to exist or not or the particular context within which it exists.
If the capitalist class process is the appropriation of the surplus value of free wage laborers (laborers who seek employment for a wage in a free market in labor power) by human beings other than the free laborers themselves, then we can easily see where some of the confusion has originated. Instead of seeing free markets in labor power as a condition of existence of capitalism, it has become a commonplace to think that free markets in general are a condition of existence of capitalism. This is misleading; of course, since it is possible to have free markets in everything except labor power and not have capitalism. Indeed, the presence of free markets in labor (power) is a necessary but not sufficient condition to define a society as capitalist. Simply because the capitalist class process may exist in a society does not imply that this type of class process prevails over all others, in terms of numbers of workers involved, total output generated, or any number of other possible criteria. Similarly, instances of slavery would not define an entire society as a slave society, if this economic arrangement were not typical. In the ante-bellum South of the United States, where there was even a free market in the buying and selling of human beings, the market in the buying and selling of human labor (power) was relatively underdeveloped. Most direct producers in the ante-bellum South were slaves or self-employed producers, not capitalist wage laborers. Under the system of slavery, a large number of productive laborers in the southern states of the United States existed in a condition of servitude, living out their lives in work camps as the owned property of other human beings, despite the presence of free markets in most goods and services. Indeed, most of the products created by these slave laborers were sold in markets, where buyers and sellers were relatively free to interact and engage in exchange. And the ideology of free markets was also very strong in the ante-bellum South. For slavery-based entrepreneurs the freedom to engage in the buying and selling of human chattel and the concomitant freedom to put those human beings to productive use was no minor matter. Thus, there can be no doubt that markets played a critical role in the economic life of the southern states. Nevertheless, the predominant class process of the South, typically assumed to have been the slave class process (whereby the performance of surplus labor depended upon the existence of a human chattel arrangement) was clearly distinct from the capitalist class process (which is understood to have prevailed in the northeastern states of the United States), whereby workers could seek and quit employment according to their own volition.
We can also see why it might have been possible to expand the role of ownership as a condition of existence of capitalism beyond the simple condition whereby it must be possible for someone other than the free wage laborer to take ownership of the surplus value created by that laborer (and then to distribute this surplus value so as to secure the conditions for further appropriations in the future). It is commonplace to believe that private ownership in general is a defining characteristic of capitalism. But again, slavery provided wide scale private ownership and yet is an economic arrangement profoundly different from capitalism. Similarly, feudalism and self-employment (the ancient class process) often exist in the presence of wide scale private ownership.
Thus, neither private ownership nor the existence of free markets in commodities other than labor power is, in these general terms, a sufficient condition for the existence of the capitalist class process. And since we call a society capitalist if and only if the capitalist class process prevails (is the predominant source of the social surplus), then the existence of such free markets and/or private property is not sufficient for a society to be labeled capitalist. It is also the case that the absence of wide scale free markets and private property is not sufficient to determine that a society is not capitalist.