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Diffuse Practices

July 23, 2011

Diffusion - an illustration of the law of large numbers I found the attached image on Wikipedia, in the article on The Law of Large Numbers, while looking for some illustrative materials for a course I’ve been designing. The blurb attached to the image reads as follows:

Diffusion is an example of the law of large numbers, applied to chemistry. Initially, there are solute molecules on the left side of a barrier (purple line) and none on the right. The barrier is removed, and the solute diffuses to fill the whole container.

Top: With a single molecule, the motion appears to be quite random.

Middle: With more molecules, there is clearly a trend where the solute fills the container more and more uniformly, but there are also random fluctuations.

Bottom: With an enormous number of solute molecules (too many to see), the randomness is essentially gone: The solute appears to move smoothly and systematically from high-concentration areas to low-concentration areas.

In realistic situations, chemists can describe diffusion as a deterministic macroscopic phenomenon…, despite its underlying random nature.

Without wanting to push the image too far, I’m wondering whether it might be useful in giving a sort of gestalt sense of how Marx approaches the “structure/agency” problem – and how he views competing theories of capitalist production to go astray…

I’ve discussed in other places how Marx uses the image of the ellipse – stolen from Hegel – to criticise competing conceptions of capitalist production. The point of that image, in Marx’s work, is to thematise the problems that can arise if a theorist looks at a problem one-sidedly. If a theorist wants to understand the relationship of two bodies, where one body orbits the other elliptically, they need to recognise the essentially non-linear character of the relationship. If this non-linear character isn’t recognised, you can get some very weird, inaccurate, linear extrapolations of how the two bodies will relate to one another in future – for example, you might conclude that the two bodies will keep flying further and further apart from one another forever; or you might conclude that the two bodies will keep spiraling closer and closer to one another until they crash.

Marx believes his contemporary fellow-theorists of capitalist production suffer from this sort of defect: they grab hold of some specific linear trend or striking aspect of capitalist production, and make it the foundation of their entire theory. As a result, they overlook the countervailing trends that will tend to invalidate simple, linear extrapolations from the current state of the system. Much of Capital – across all its volumes – consists in exploring these kinds of linear extrapolations, working out what aspects of capitalist production they can plausibly be said to describe, and then panning back to show other dimensions of capitalist production – countervailing trends – generate very different tendencies.

Capitalist production, for Marx, is the production and reproduction of this whole complex of contradictory and mutually undermining trends: the term “capital” is redefined in Marx’s work so that its referent is the aggregate consequence of the mutually-conditioned interaction between all of these divergent trends. Both critics and supporters of Marx have tended to read him as a theorist who makes predictions about the future trajectory of capitalist production – but have missed that the main “prediction” he makes is that a great many other predictions, made by other theorists, are far too linear and fail to take account of contradictory trends. Since Marx is perfectly happy to dwell, often for hundreds of pages, within the thought-space of bodies of thought he intends to criticise, it’s perhaps understandable that so many people take him to be making the very predictions he is trying to explode from within. It’s nevertheless a frustrating misunderstanding of the point of his critique – where the frustration is less that people misunderstand Marx (not a particularly important thing in its own right), but that people miss a serious and sustained model for how we might critically analyse extremely complex, non-linear, contradictory social phenomena today.

So back to the image of diffusion above… One of the misapprehensions Marx grapples with is the idea that the phenomena he wants to analyse are just contingent, random results of individual practices – the sort of approach often reflected when people talk about individual choice as the guiding category for understanding what happens on the market. Marx ventriloquises aspects of this sort of theory in the opening paragraphs of Capital, and again in some of his reflections on money in chapter 2, and periodically at other junctures in the text. He’s particularly scathing of this sort of approach, and associates with what he calls “vulgar” – apologistic – political economy. He believes this kind of theorisation systematically deflects attention from large-scale structural tendencies – a deflection he sees as, at best, convenient for those who would want to draw attention away from the grievances of those disenfranchised by capitalist production.

The point of his critique is not to deny capitalist production involves a great deal of “choice” – historically capitalism opens up an enormous space for individual decision making, and this historical circumstance is important in thinking about emancipatory potentials that could be opened up in alternative forms of social life in the future. The point, instead, is to argue that this approach to theorising capitalist production forecloses the analysis of the non-random results of this explosion of “choice” – and thus creates a rhetoric of capitalism as the idyll of freedom and mutual consent, of the sort that Marx lampoons at the end of the Capital chapter 6, when he describes:

a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

This “Eden of the innate rights of man” is the sort of blinkered view that might result from looking at our social relations only through the lens represented by the first panel in our image of diffusion above. Watching the apparently random walk of the individual social “particle”, it seems plausible enough to say its movements are driven by nothing but mere chance – or, in the social example, choice – free will.

Backing up to the aggregate – which Marx believes the best of the classical political economists attempted to do – yields something more like the third image on the panel: here, at this level, things look deterministic. So deterministic that it is possible to derive general universal laws without worrying ourselves too much with the contingent reasons those laws might have come about, and with the ways those laws rely for their continued operation on the reproduction of very specific sorts of social practices.

Marx is more sympathetic with this sort of approach – he thinks it’s more promising as a starting point for a properly critical theory. He regards it, nevertheless, as also apologistic in its implications: by severing the deduction of general laws from an analysis of the practice by which those laws are generated and reproduced, classical political economy tends to elevate its laws into a transcendent realm that is treated as a kind of intrinsic essence to which human practices should conform. The deductive “is” becomes a normative “ought” – and the trends and tendencies that happen to characterise a contingent form of social life are thus shielded from critique.

What Marx wants to do, instead, is account for how these non-random trends are generated, by specific sorts of practices. He believes that neither vulgar nor classical political economy attempts this sort of analysis:

Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value. These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Hence forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.

By drilling into the practical production of the sorts of trends posited by political economy, Marx is better able to explore the limitations on these trends – to avoid false extrapolations that assume that capitalism in the future will linearly expand on specific aspects of capitalism in the present. He also often “defends” aspects of political economy in a deeply ironic mode – showing that it is possible in some sense to maintain a basically problematic claim, but not for any of the reasons political economists would have used to make that claim in the first place. The labour theory of value is the most prominent, but far from the only, example of this sort of move: there is a sense, in Capital, in which capitalist production does revolve uniquely around human labour, but this isn’t because human labour power is intrinsically valuable for material production; it’s not because human labour power is uniquely important in the determination of price; it’s not even because human labour power is important as an expression of the development of the human being who develops themselves freely by externalising themselves in creative productive activity. Instead, Marx retains the “labour theory of value” in an ironic form, by showing how and why capitalist production on a global scale tends to expand and preserve the need for the expenditure of specifically human labour power in the process of production, regardless of how high productivity grows – making it possible to characterise capitalist production as unique amongst organisations of production in human history, for seeming on a structural level to value the expenditure of human labour directly, while at the same time increasingly rendering this expenditure unnecessary as a motive force for meeting even a vastly expanded set of material needs.

Marx is reaching for a form of analysis that is neither focused solely on the individual – who appears to move randomly, driven by self-interest, when examined in isolation – nor solely on the most abstract layer of aggregate consequence of the system as a whole – where the contingent process by which the system is produced falls from view. He is reaching for something that can situate both of these layers of analysis within a narrative of production – not in its narrow economic sense, but in the sense of the practical production of this distinctive and complex, contradictory and non-linear, social relation Marx calls “capital”.

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From → Marx

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