Normativity, Ideology, and Historicity in the Work of Karl Marx

I posted a comment on Levi Bryant’s recent post responding to some criticisms offered by Pete Wolfendale. You can read the exchange there if you’re interested, but I wanted to focus on something Levi said there, and on a comment he made in a parallel thread on Jon Cogburn’s Blog, as I think it offers a good opportunity to begin explicating the manner in which my understanding of Marx, and philosophy in general, has evolved in the last few months. I’m going to write in more detail about these changes in some upcoming posts, so this will serve as a kind of introduction.

While I think a lot of these changes have been strongly foreshadowed in what I was doing before, it’s been my recent exposure to the work of Robert Brandom and Pete’s interpretation of it that has served as the catalyst. I’m still working through the consequences, which have been very far reaching and hence have been a big part of my relative absence from blogging (that and my relocation back to the US), but this post should mark my return, and in some ways a reboot of this blog (thus the change of appearance).

I should also state from the outset that I don’t cite any of the textual evidence to which I implicitly refer in making these claims about Marx, mostly because this post has already grown very long and I want to keep it as concise as possible. Nonetheless, I think the evidence is ample, and I will be citing it explicitly in some upcoming posts in which I will flesh out these ideas in more detail.

1. Introduction: Marx and Normativity

The role of normativity in Marx’s philosophy is certainly a contentious and difficult issue to work through, but I think properly cashing it out will have enormous benefits for our understanding of the philosophical significance and the political implications that work might have. So what is this role? I’ll take as my point of departure the remark Levi Bryant made at Jon Cogburn’s Blog, where he says:

What I find perplexing is when normativity becomes the master-signifier of a philosophical discourse or that around which an entire philosophical discourse is organized, such that all other issues are subordinated to discussions of norms. That’s the sort of philosophical discourse that I find suffocating and claustrophobic. It’s the difference between say Habermas and a thinker like Kant or Marx. Kant and Marx, of course, both have a lot to say about issues such as freedom and the former has a lot to say about normativity. But in my view, it’s omnipresent in either figures discourse. This is especially true in the case of Marx, where there’s hardly any discussion of norms at all.

I’m having some trouble figuring out the line of reasoning at work in this comment, but the point I’m particularly interested in is the concluding remark about Marx, namely, that Marx barely discusses “norms”, which I take to mean normative concerns in general and not merely the norms themselves. Levi seems to suggest, however, that while Marx does deal with normative concerns, specifically freedom (assuming Levi accepts that freedom is a deontic matter and not an alethic one, which the context appears to indicate), their treatment is “omnipresent”, which I take to mean that it is at work in the background throughout Marx’s explicit treatment of concerns that are not primarily normative. In other words, Levi seems to prefer leaving engagement with normative concerns an implicit affair, rather than making it the explicit concern around which the majority of one’s work is organized, as its “master-signifier”. (I’ll leave aside for the moment that explication of a concept by no means need entail its systematic centrality.) So, when Levi says that in Marx “there’s hardly any discussion of norms at all”, he means explicit thematization, even while normative matters are implicated in discussions of non-normative matters.

I’m not certain why one would prefer to leave such treatment implicit, rather than either explicating it or excising it altogether. It may have something to do with Levi’s avowed aversion to the signifier ‘normativity’, which he claims is an extra-philosophical matter of reflex. If this is the case, then the preference itself would only incidentally be of philosophical interest, if at all. Yet in another comment, he seems to offer something more like an argument for this preference:

My point was that Marx does not begin from the standpoint of a deontological model of normative reasoning based on universal and a priori principles from which norms are derived and then applied to particular circumstances. For Marx, norms always arise historically through specific social processes. Of course everyone evokes norms of one sort or another. What I am critiquing are these law based models that are made the focus and foundation of philosophical discourse.

I’m not quite sure what Levi means by “law based models” of normativity, and how these are meant to conflict with “historically specific” ones. The laws imposed by a state, for example, are all thoroughly specific to historically-situated practices of legislation, adjudication, and enforcement, but they are not for that any less “law based”. Moreover, I don’t know how one could have an understanding of normativity that isn’t “law-“, or at least “rule-based” (assuming one makes the distinction), in that norms qua norms are simply rules for pragmatic conduct. One can understand rules in terms of the symbols that signify them and the social practices that manifest them, but one would not be thereby engaging with normativity as such. I think Pete has laid out a pretty strong case for this distinction in his post “Dissecting Norms”.

Nonetheless, this comment seems to indicate the Levi was running two things together: explicit vs implicit treatments of normative concerns, on one hand, and accounts that treat norms as a priori and ahistorical vs those that treat norms as a posteriori and historically-specific, on the other hand. Now, there is no necessary reason why one of the latter approaches necessitates one of the former presentational strategies. Assumedly, if one were giving norms a priori status, one would want to be explicit about it, whereas if one did not regard them as so foundational, one would be less concerned with such explicit treatment. Yet Levi seems to suggest at least that 1) any explicit treatment of norms affords them a priori status, and perhaps also that 2) Marx only treats norms implicitly, and this is evidence that he would refuse any a priori status of norms.

The first claim is certainly suspect, not only because Levi himself is making explicit claims about normativity without advocating their apriority, but also because it fails to be sufficiently nuanced in its characterization of explicit treatments of normativity. For example, as Pete has shown very convincingly in his aforementioned post (among others), advocating for the apriority of certain norms does not entail commitment to the apriority, nor to the ahistoricity, of all norms, nor of the majority of norms. Nor does such advocacy hamstring one’s ability to relate normative matters to concrete historical analysis of the material-practical conditions in which norms are manifest. I’m unaware of any salient rejoinders to these arguments by Levi or anyone else, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but otherwise the burden of proof would be on Levi at this point.

The second claim, which I’m not sure is one Levi wants to explicitly make, but which is implied in the cited comments, is certainly not necessary to uphold that Marx would deny apriority to norms. Indeed, the commonplace interpretation of Marx would lead one to believe him to be clearly opposed to such status. Yet commonplace interpretations are generally misleading. Unfortunately, Marx is not completely straightforward on the matter, but I would argue that this in not because Marx only treats norms implicitly, but because his engagement with normative concerns is relatively unsystematic, especially when one considers the entirety of his oeuvre. Nonetheless, I believe that through a combination of explication and rational reconstruction, we can show that Marx has a clear position on normative concerns, and moreover that this position does not exclude out of hand a priori norms such as the “fundamental norms of rationality” that Pete defends. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to argue that Marx’s position ultimately requires reference to some fundamental set of norms if it is to be genuinely scientific, and if it is to militate for political change grounded in rational collective determination rather than particular material interests.

(I hope Levi will excuse me if I anticipate his reaction, one which I’ve heard from him before, that this Marx is unrecognizable and counter-intuitive. I recognize that this is not the commonplace understanding we have of Marx (although it does resemble Habermas’s Marx to some extent), but I will begin here to put forward arguments, which I will be developing in more detail in the future, that this counterintuitive portrait is both more faithful to the spirit of Marx than those with which it is incompatible, and that there is strong textual support for such a reading. It is cliched to note that Marx is one of the most distorted and misrepresented figures in the history of philosophy, but the fact is that we won’t get far with Marx if we are not prepared to argumentatively defend our interpretations of his work, and so counterintuitive impressions are not only not worth much, they are virtually irrelevant.)

Before I continue on, I want to contest one more point in Levi’s comments, which is that Marx barely gave any explicit treatment to normative concerns. As I said above, I believe is treatment is more unsystematic than it is non-explicit. Indeed, I believe Marx’s work, at least his philosophical and political-economic writings, are almost exclusively concerned with normative matters. It would not be a stretch to characterize these works as motivated by two basic projects: 1) the question of what constitutes a legitimately scientific discourse, especially in the field of political economy; 2) the question of how to motivate political conviction not grounded in material interests (wealth, security, survival, etc), but in a genuinely egalitarian mode of collective determination. In the former case, this involves denouncing the confusion of (pseudo-)entities that have only social existence (values, capital, the commodity form, relations of production) with entities that have objective existence (those involved in the material forces of production, namely, the physical exertion of laboring bodies and the means and materials they employ). In the latter case, this involves the philosophical conviction that the proletariat is poised to initiate a revolutionary reorganization of society that, unlike previous upheavals, which were motivated by the material interests of an oppressed class, has no such class-based bias, but on the contrary involves the dissolution of class itself, and hence social organization as involving antagonisms between groups with fundamentally incompatible (or contradictory) material interests.

Needless to say, both of these projects are defined by explicitly normative problems (legitimation of scientific claims on one hand, motivation of political commitments on the other). And insofar as Marx’s work can almost exhaustively be divided amongst them, it can be characterized at any point as an explicit treatment of either or both of these problems. Nonetheless, Marx does not speak about normativity in the same language that we do, in that the modern, highly developed vocabulary employed in contemporary discourse was not available to him. He does, nonetheless, employ a vocabulary very close to the German Idealist tradition in many places, especially Hegel, which I follow Brandom as understanding in terms of a principle concern with normativity. (Certainly if Marx is rejecting anything about Hegel, it is his tendency to transpose logical concepts into metaphysical ones, a tendency in which Brandom seems to have no interest.)

There is one more preliminary concern with the role of normativity within Marx’s project, which is evident when we consider the perennially problematic character of the relation between the scientific and political projects Marx is pursuing. How would a properly scientific understanding of materiality relate to political motivations and convictions? Interpretations of Marx by both his proponents and detractors have historically fallen into one of two camps, characterized by voluntarist and determinist conceptions of the relation. The former camp emphasizes and the latter more or less denies the autonomy of subjective political engagement from alethic necessity and the scientific predictability it allows for. I think both interpretations are based on misunderstandings, and hence both should be rejected.

The determinist approach follows a roughly Althusserian periodization of Marx’s work, according to which only his early ‘humanist’ writings deal with the political project, which becomes irrelevant with the emergence of the scientific project in his mature works. This can either take the weak form of claiming that a clear scientific understanding of the economy is the best means of motivating change, whose necessity would become evident to those who can grasp it, or the strong form that such motivation is unnecessary because change will only occur when material forces are ripe, and subjective convictions are ineffectual epiphenomena of these forces. Yet both variants of the determinist approach are flawed. Weak determinism falters in assuming that empirical claims can serve as sufficient reasons for political change, thus denying that political determination is to some extent attitude-dependent. If this were the case, collective determination would reduce to reading the imperatives for social organization off of nature, and communism would collapse into technocracy. (As I will argue later, Marx’s historical materialism is strictly opposed to this sort of teleological approach.) Strong determinism also fails, in that it attempts to reduce the deontic modality that characterizes the motivating force of political reasons and commitments to the alethic modality of material causality. I won’t rehearse here all the arguments against conflating or collapsing these two modalities, but I will point out that such reductionism undercuts the very possibility of the scientific approach, insofar as science – like all rational discourse – is a normative affair.

Voluntarist approaches vary, but are generally characterized by some attempt to argue against the reduction of subjective convictions to their material base. Recently, many of these approaches have taken a strongly Negrian flavor, which in some manner attributes a material (or otherwise immaterial but objective) character to something like the creative will or life-force of the masses, and then finds a place for it within the scientifically-intelligible infrastructure. (This approach clearly owes at least something to Sartre’s version of Marxism, which he infused with his ontologization of subjective freedom, as well as to the tradition of French spiritualism, likely as filtered through Deleuze.)

In a certain respect, I have a greater affinity for the voluntarist approach, in that it recognizes the necessity of reserving some sort of autonomy for the subjective and inter-subjective over and above the alethic modal necessity testified to by materialist science. Yet while it avoids the clumsy mistake of the determinist approach, it only does so by making an even more grievous error, one which reintroduces into marxism a mistake whose correction was the distinctive point of departure of Marx’s early work, which set him apart from the other Young Hegelians.

In the next section, I will clarify how Marx does not fall into either the determinist or voluntarist camp by explicating his parallel rejection of both ‘abstract materialism’ and ‘contemplative materialism’ (which have strong family resemblances to determinism and voluntarism, respectively), in contrast to which he proposes his own position of historical materialism. The remainder of the post will explain in greater detail how historical materialism is premised on a strict separation of the normative and the natural (and hence of deontic and alethic modalities), and what implications this has for the concepts of ideology, normativity, and historicity.

2. Contemplative, Abstract, and Historical Materialism

At different points in his career, Marx defines his version of materialism in opposition to other variants of materialism, most notably Feuerbach’s, which he characterizes as “contemplative materialism”, and the “abstract materialism” of natural science when it attempts to explanatorily encompass the realm of socially-valid truths.

Feuerbach’s position is distinctive for advocating a secular and materialistic basis of politics in opposition to a religious basis that derives its authority through appeal to some purportedly objective entity like God, whose objectivity is nonetheless immaterial and hence exempted from naturalistic explanation. Feuerbach attempts to denounce the alleged objectivity of such immaterial entities by leading them back to their source in an objectively real material entity, namely man. The immaterial creations of man, such as God, are not real but ideal, and hence it is not from the non-objective ideality but from its real essence and source – the essence of man as creator of idealities – that such political claims derive authority. (At this point I must note that I do not take this to be a faithful portrayal of Feuerbach’s position itself. I’m only doing my best to reconstruct Marx’s characterization, which very well could be a mischaracterization, of Feuerbach’s position.)

Feuerbach, as with other ‘contemplative materialists’ that follow loosely the same approach, errs in conflating man as a natural and material entity with the socially-constituted normative character of man. Feuerbach treats man as the originator of idealities without recognizing that it is only as an agent in the ideal, normative realm that he has this capacity. The capacities for ideation cannot be straightforwardly traced back to an essence of man that he possess as an objective attribute in the same manner as ‘having to hands’ or ‘being a mammal’. Contemplative materialism dispels the ascription of objectivity to one sort of ideal entity, an immaterial one like God, only to ascribe objectivity to another ideal entity, be it an ostensibly material one like man’s essence or “species-being”.

Marx rejects this move as a continuation of idealism by other means, and the whole stage of Marx’s work which is typically characterized as ‘immature’ and ‘humanist’ is better understood as working out the consequences of this insight, attempting to avoid the confusion of the socially- and objectively-valid or the ideal and material. Marx does not simply want to reduce the ideal to an ostensibly material base, which Feuerbach had already tried to do, but instead to account for the social validity of the ideal in materialist terms without surreptitiously importing some ideality into the material realm. The latter approach undermines materialism from the outset insofar as it predicates objectivity of something that cannot be accounted for in materialistic terms (be it an immaterial objectivity like God or an ‘material’ objectivity like species-being). (This still begs the question, which will be raised explicitly below, as to what sort of ‘account’ such a materialistic account of ideality can provide, and whether it is supposed to be explanatorily exhaustive, and thus effectively reductive, or not.)

Marx’s criticism of ‘abstract materialism’ is similar to that of contemplative materialism. This criticism is very briefly sketched in the fourth footnote to Chapter 15 of Capital, Volume 1, after a recapitulation of the critique of Feuerbach:

The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.

While Feuerbach errs in importing an ideal entity into the objective realm in order to explain ideality in objective terms, abstract materialism simply attempts to employ the same explanatory methods used to explain objective reality (i.e. the natural sciences) to account for the ideal, thus extending these methods “beyond the bounds” of their legitimate use. This is a more straightforward variant of what we currently recognize as reductionism. Yet because socially valid entities are not material, and hence not objective, they are cannot answer to a methodology that deals with objectivity, explaining it in material terms. Whereas Feuerbach ascribes objectivity to certain ideal entities in order to explain other non-objective ideal entities, abstract materialists implicitly ascribe objectivity to all ideal entities in trying to explain them in terms of non-ideal objective entities. Both therefore conflate the ideal and material, albeit in different ways.

We can thus see that Marx is neither a reductionist nor an epiphenomenalist about ideality, in that he holds that it is not amenable to materialistic explanation and that it obliges a unique explanatory approach. Yet this does not yet spell out what this latter sort of explanation is, nor how it relates to the former. It does, however, provide us with adequate resources to explicate Marx’s theory of ideology, by way of which we will begin to approach the problem of providing a materialist account of the ideal that does not conflate it with the material.

3. What is Ideology?

This leads me back to the comment by Levi which inspired this post in the first place:

from a Marxist historical materialist point of view– and here my own “normative” commitments come out –arguments of the sort Pete is making are doomed to always be ideological fetishes insofar as they eternalize that which is contingent and historically specific, failing to give an account of how these norms emerge for specific systems… Pete is being accused of reifying the transcendental and illicitly generalizing it when the transcendental is, in fact, system specific.

I have several problems with these assertions. First and foremost, I think they misconstrues the analysis of fetishism. Levi claims that Pete is fetishizing certain norms (whether these are norms that Pete is arguing about, or those that govern the argument by specifying what it is to argue about his subject matter, isn’t clear, although in the case of fundamental deontology I suppose they coincide) because he attributes them ahistorical and “generalized” status. I understand the objection about historicity, and will address it below, but I’m not sure I understand what Levi means by “generalization” and “system-specificity”. Transcendental norms, and norms more generally, are “system-specific” in the sense that they are only binding on, and moreover only exist for, subjects that belong to the space of reasons. Norms are not generalized in that they don’t apply to any entities other than reason-liable subjects; norms do not apply to animals and inanimate objects, for example. (Levi might mean that all norms are historically contingent, and hence that no norms can apply to all subjects by virtue of being subjects – I deal with this objection in section 5 below.)

My second objection is that I think Levi is again running two things together – the genesis of norms qua norms, and the genesis of the material-practical conditions of their manifestation. We can talk about the historical emergence and specificity of most norms (excluding, if we accept Pete’s argument, the fundamental norms which are binding on all subjects insofar as they are rational), but this cannot be understood as an emergence from materiality or a material genesis. New norms emerge from the revision, correction, clarification and explication of the existing set of (implicit and explicit) norms. We can also talk about the material genesis of the practices that manifest these norms and the activities that perpetuate and alter them. Yet these are different accounts, referring to different subjects matters, and while there are certainly enlightening relations to be discovered between them, they should not be conflated. While non-transcendental norms are historically contingent, they are not so in the same sense that their material conditions of manifestation are, nor is the historicity of the former a consequence of the historicity of the latter. I’ll go into more detail on this matter, and how it relates to historical materialism, in the next section.

The third objection, which leads back to the points established in the previous section, concerns the way Levi characterizes reification. The ironic thing about Levi’s comment is that it accuses Pete of “reifying the transcendental” because he fails to predicate system-specificity of it, when treating the transcendental as materially situated in this way is precisely what reification consists in. Reification is treating a social phenomenon – such as set of norms, or any other attitude dependent entity – as if it were an objective phenomenon, and thus ascribing objective validity to claims that can only really have social validity. Of course, norms are system-specific in the sense that they are only (socially) real insofar as they have appropriate conditions of manifestation, up to and including transcendental norms whose material condition would simply be any entities whatsoever capable of acting as rational agents. Yet this manifestation, which is only the case for us, is not to be confused with objectification, in which case norms would be present in their objective condition in-itself. Norms appear to be manifest in the symbols that signify them and the practices they coordinate (or more precisely, we act as if they are so manifest), but this manifestation does not extend beyond its pragmatic significance for the community of subjects engaged in the practice of giving and asking for reasons.

I’m not sure if the sense of system-specificity Levi is working with wants to go so far as to argue that norms have objective existence, but given his broader ontological commitments I’d imagine he’d have to hold something like this position. Yet this is very similar to the move for which Marx criticizes Feuerbach: ascribing objective existence to something that by right can only claim socially-valid existence. Indeed, reification is more correctly understood not as the generalization of norms beyond the specific systems to which they apply, but as their objectification, or the conferral of objectively-valid existence on them. While both generalization and objectification can be understood as making claims about norms that extend beyond legitimate bounds, the former is too vague to capture Marx’s precise complaint – which concerns over-extension as the ascription of objective existence to something non-objective – and falls foul of this same complaint if it is to be understood as restricting claims one can legitimately make about norms to claims one can legitimately make about their material conditions of manifestation, a move which effectively treats norms as objective and thus reified.

An “ideological fetish” is the product of reification in this regard: it is the hybrid produced by the conflation of norms and their material conditions of manifestation. By this definition, we can see that not only does Pete not exhibit normative fetishism – insofar as he advocates the strict separation of that which has a purely socially-valid existence from that which has material and objective existence – it is Levi who seems to understand norms fetishistically, in his implicit claim that they are materialized in their conditions of manifestation and thus are as equally objective as these conditions. Pete has formerly diagnosed this very tendency in far greater detail, although without realizing its remarkable proximity to Marx, using the term ‘hybridization’ instead of reification and ’empirico-normative hybrid’ instead of fetish.

This explication has the additional benefit of more clearly spelling out the incompatibility of Latour and Marx. Marx is paradigmatically modern in Latour’s sense, in that he advocates a pure and unambiguous separation of the “cultural”, or that which can only claim socially-valid existence insofar as it is dependent on our attitudes about it, and the “natural”, or that which has objectively-valid existence insofar as the truth of claims made about it are independent of our attitudes about it. Ideology is, in one sense, the conflation of these two spheres, and fetishes are the hybridic offspring of the objectification of the ideal, or the attribution of naturalness to the cultural. I suspect that Levi will object to this characterization of Marx, although I’m remiss to see what grounds there might be for such an objection, as even a cursory reading of “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” will reveal the primary concern is the conflation of social and objective validity.

Levi’s Latourian commitment to the unreality of the distinction between the natural and cultural is perhaps what led him to characterize fetishism as a matter not of the conflation of these two spheres, but of the ascription of ahistoricity to something historical. While I do not deny that the latter sort of ascription should be highly suspect from a Marxist point of view, the question of historicity is secondary with regards to that of the social or objective character of the entity whose historicity is in question. As Pete shows quite clearly in the above-linked post, the ascription of objectivity to something that cannot be accounted for in material terms has the result of making that thing appear dislodged from historical specificity, insofar as we cannot give a causal account of its genesis. Thus, while an ideological fetish may have the false appearance of ahistoricity, this is only a side-effect of the reification that produced it, not its primary characteristic. This leads us into the sticky question, alluded to in the second objection above, of the distinct senses of historicity said of the objective and normative realms, and the problem of their relation.

4. Ideology, Politics, and Class Struggle

Marx certainly wouldn’t be content to grant that that which has socially-valid existence is simply ahistorical. Yet as should be clear from the former section, the historicity of the social realm cannot be collapsed into that of the natural realm. Unfortunately, it is at this point far from clear how the historical character of the social relates to that of the natural, and how to understand the relation between manifestation and genesis of norms.

The historical genesis of natural entities, and thus the material conditions of manifestation of socially-valid entities, is fully accountable in causal, natural-scientific terms. Social entities themselves, on the other hand, while presumably historically accountable, are not causal but normative. We can account for their historical genesis by referring them to historical processes of their explication, clarification, and revision in accordance with experience (in the Hegelian sense as that which reveals the necessary inconsistencies within a given conceptual scheme).

‘Experience’ in this sense provides one important joint at which problems of the historicity of norms and practical conditions intersect, especially relevant for questions of scientific inquiry. For example, certain experiential challenges to our existing theoretical schemata are only possible at specific stages of material development, at points in which we have developed more adequately precise instruments and techniques than those on which we’d previously relied. Thus, questions about the material history of social practices, including the economic support of scientific and technological advancement, have certain relevance to questions about the history of conceptual revision within scientific discourse.

The relation between these two realms isn’t limited to questions of experience, but also extends to those of the interplay between political and ethical norms and the material relations between groups and individuals in which they are manifest. These even have a certain priority over the former type, in that economic support of scientific enterprises depends upon whether science is deemed an enterprise worthy of collective commitment (although the agent of this decision is not necessarily a genuinely collective agency, as is obvious from history; it could just as well be an aristocracy or oligarchy). These sorts of questions are at the heart of Marx’s work as a critique of ideology. Ideology is not simply, as defined above, the reification of norms, or the ascription of objective validity to merely socially-valid claims, but also involves the manner in which material pressures in the practical constitution of society can lead to such irrational distortions of its normative dimension.

Just as the material limits on possible experiences restrict the progress of scientific inquiry, so can the material organization of conditions of manifestation lead to the limitation and distortion of the norms that manifest through them. Ideology, while including the intra-normative problem of fetishism, is more fundamentally a matter of the material relations between individuals and how these impact the normative relations between them as rational agents, specifically when there is some imbalance or asymmetry in the power dynamic (or correlatively, the wealth dynamic) between these individuals. For Marx, the economy or ‘economic foundation’ is not a matter of markets, prices, and commodities, but of this material organization through which life is sustained, reproduced, enriched and impoverished. The economic foundation determines ‘in the last instance’ the social (normative) relations of production (through which socially-valid entities like commodities and prices come into being) because it exerts certain non-rational limitations, constraints, and influences upon the latter.

The form of influence that most interests Marx is ‘class struggle’, in which the material interests (survival, security, and ultimately prosperity) of social groups are basically incompatible or antagonistic, and grow more and more contradictory as society develops. Whichever group is disadvantaged by this incompatibility will naturally want to overturn the material relations that are currently existing, while the benefiting group will want to maintain these relations. Yet Marx’s account is not fundamentally about material interests, but about rational interests as well – this is clear when we recognize that the victory of the proletariat is not just another victory of the material interests of one group over those of another, and thus the perpetuation of class struggle, but the dissolution of class and thus of group-specific material interests as the organizing principle of social relations.

I can’t go into great enough detail on why Marx sees capitalism as the last class-based mode of production, but I can hint at it. While previous modes of production of course involve normative relations between individuals, and to some extent rational relations at that, the latter were far too underdeveloped and hindered by irrational appeals to authority founded either in divine or natural law, or else sheer force. Capitalism, having emerged roughly alongside the Enlightenment, was roughly contemporaneous with the rapid development of not only the rational basis of activities like science, but also the critique of rationally unjustifiable forms of authority. Capitalism was the first mode of production in which a rational organization of society, whose principle would not be material but rational interests, became a prominent ideal. (Whether this is a coincidence or not is a matter that will have to be addressed at another time.) Nonetheless, despite the ostensive appeal to rational organization, this ideal was hindered by the lingering class struggle. To maintain their dominant position, the bourgeoisie had to infect rational discourse (including discourse about rationality) with all sorts of fetishistic distortions, such that their material advantage at the expense of the proletariat could appear rationally justifiable. (Of course, treating this as if it were a conscious decision by a group of conspirators is misleading. These distortions are better understood as gradually accruing due to the constraints and influences of material wealth and force upon the development of the normative sphere.) Among these distortions was the ‘scientific’ defense of this social organization by the bourgeois political economists.

The Marxist argument is that the possibility of a rational basis of social organization is ideologically compromised. However, as the material contradictions become more and more exacerbated, their irrational influence on the rational sphere should become more evident, and thus the possibility should arise for a critique of this ideological contamination, both in the science of economy and the political ideals of society. This accounts for the possibility of Marx’s critical standpoint, which constitutes the basis from which rational resistance can be offered to the irrational ideological defense of the material imbalance in society.

Thus, I think we can characterize Marx’s aspirations as involving the conviction that, insofar as a rational social relation depends upon symmetrical recognitive relations between all rational agents, such that agents are all equal qua agents, none possessing authority over others that cannot be rationally justified, this should extend not only to the formal equality of agents qua agents, but the material equality of agents qua individuals. (‘Materially inequality’ is intentionally undetermined at this point; I wouldn’t say it is anything as strong as ‘equality of outcome’, especially considering the difficulty of devising a quantitative measure capable of equivocating over both qualitatively distinct outcomes, and the distinct preferences of individuals. Nonetheless, it should at the very least mean that no individual can be unjustifiably denied means of subsistence and improvement, and that accumulations of wealth must in turn be rationally justifiable.) This is the rational basis of communism as a classless society, or one in which material interest is thoroughly subordinated to (collective) rational interest.

The Marxist account is one of progress, wherein society has gradually elevated itself from being organized strictly in terms of material interest, to aspiring to a rational organization, be it one that is still thwarted. This account requires that norms are not only subjectively and intersubjectively determined, but that some norms hold necessarily by virtue of the structure of rationality. If this were not the case, then it would be hard to see what basis there would be for a social organization based not any the specific interests of any group, but on the interests of all rational agents qua rational agents. In other words, the possibility of communism requires that there is a sense of rationality that is independent of individual- and group-specific attitudes. I will try to defend this point a bit more in the penultimate section, but it obviously has a long way to go. Nonetheless, I think I’ve at this point done enough to show that fundamental norms of rationality might be necessary for a systematic reconstruction of Marx’s position. I still have to address the question of whether the possibility of such norms is consistent with Marx’s broader theoretical commitments.

If norms are socially-valid, they either ought to answer to the collective determination of the whole community of rational agents (even if they in fact only answer to a specific segment of that whole), or else be valid by virtue of being necessarily implicated in the very structure of rationality (even if ideological distortions in fact undermine rational consistency). Ideology is operative when certain actions are not rationally defensible, that is, they cannot answer to either the whole community of rational agents, nor to the structure of rationality itself, and so they instead appeal to an allegedly ‘objective’ authority, insulating norms from revision by attributing to them objective validity. At different historical stages, we become more able to throw off such distortions and opt for more rational discourses. This is what makes the ideal of science something Marx can aspire to – for science is not itself possible without a sufficient excision of fetishistic ‘objective’ idealities. Insofar as we have gradually opted for rational over irrational bases of social organization, and gradually purged our rational discourse of ideological distortions, we have made progress.

5. Objective and Non-objective Historicity

Now that I’ve laid out how historical materialism differs from both contemplative and abstract materialisms, it should be more clear how it avoids both the voluntarist and determinist interpretative options. It is not a determinism because it insists on the autonomy of the deontic normative realm of social validity from the alethic causal realm of objective validity that constitutes its material condition of manifestation. This autonomy is both explanatory, in the sense that explanation of the material base is insufficient for explaining the normative superstructure (the former’s determining power over the latter being of the order of a last-instance constraint), and pragmatic, in the sense that rational motivations for acting are irreducible to material interests, or put otherwise, the norms governing the correctness of our actions and statements cannot be read off of the behaviors and utterances in which they manifest. And it is not voluntarism, because the basis of this autonomy is not ontological, in that it does not subscribe to the objective status of normative concepts like will, freedom, creativity, etc.

Rather, this presentation should allow us to see that the proper way of relating the scientific and political projects in Marx’s work is through a concept of rational progress, according to which society has gradually shed most of the ideological distortions that, by infecting rational discourse with irrational appeals to authority (or non-ideological, purely repressive appeals to brute force, although the two have always historically be intertwined), both hindered the possibility of objective science and burdened society with an unjustifiable asymmetrical recognitive structure based upon the preservation of material inequalities. It is Marx’s conviction that by purging the science of political economy, or the science of the material constitution of social existence, of the fetishism that so thoroughly pervades it, the bourgeoisie would be deprived of the last bastion of ideological appeal through which it guards against a rational transformation of social relations. He further believes that, while the material relations within capitalism have progressed to the point of enabling such scientific progress (and hence his own discourse), this is not sufficient to carry through the further material transformations necessary to rationally reform the political constitution of society as well. Thus, a scientific critique of political economy is a necessary but insufficient condition of a rational critique of the existing political superstructure, which requires a further transformation of the material obstacles holding it back.

We’ve also seen why historical materialism is a materialism, in that it wants to avoid both explicit and implicit ascription of objective status to ideal entities, instead reserving objective claims exclusively for claims about material entities. Yet I’ve so far only hinted at why this historical materialism is also historical materialism. I’ve already drawn a vague distinction between the historicity of material existence and that of the normative realm, but this needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

To begin doing so, I’d like to distinguish two senses in which something has a ‘history’. The first is a weak sense (and ultimately I’d want to withhold extending the concept of ‘history’ to this case, but it makes sense to do so here) in which something has a past, and is thus both temporally situated and has a definite temporal genesis. Everything that is material is weakly ‘historical’ or temporal in this sense. The second is a strong sense, in which something has a history if we can reconstruct the timeline of its genesis by selecting a series of events that have narrative significance for this genesis. This history is not the actual past in which something came about, but the way we narratively reconstruct that past in terms rendered meaningful in that they can account for the sufficient conditions of that thing’s genesis. We can see, moreover, that implicit within this sense of history as an account of certain past events with narrative existence, is a further sense of progressive significance, wherein the thing whose history we are telling is the standard against which previous states of affairs are measured, such that the initial state is minimally compliant with this standard, and the final state is maximally compliant (insofar as it provides the standard itself). (We can of course from here imagine more complex narratives that either abstract from all actual states a thing has undergone and posit a more perfect or ideal state, and/or continue that history beyond whatever actual or ideal state is held up as the standard of progress, but these are outgrowths of the simple form of narrative I’m working with.)

While something analogous to narrative significance is found within objective temporality itself (which I’d call causal significance), this should not be confused with narrative significance, in that the latter involves a subjective act which arbitrarily selects some entity as a progressive standard, and then artificially reconstructs the objective timeline in terms of this arbitrary selection. Without making such a selection, it would be hard to say whether we could render the causal significance objective events have for each other intelligible at all (I wouldn’t go so far as to make this claim now, but it is a possible implication). The more important question here is whether we should make the leap of extending progressive significance beyond its role in narrative historicizing, and claim that it is somehow more than analogously related to causal significance. This is a teleological move, in that understands our selection of standards of progress within the objective world as honing in on something with objective significance, such that causality really progresses toward some entity as its final cause. Teleological accounts of progress would therefore see the progressive significance we ascribe to causal phenomena as reflecting something essential about that phenomena itself, amounting to more than a socially-valid convention we employ in rendering the massively complex causal temporality of the world intelligible.

Contemplative materialism and most forms of idealism would ascribe objectivity to these purely ideal standards, and so can tell a progressive story about the world as it is in-itself, and thus about telos of the world. Marx, on the contrary, wants to restrict such standards to socially-valid status only, and thus rejects teleological accounts of the objective world. Progressive significance is thus not a feature of the material realm itself, but only of the way materiality figures for us, within our explanations of it. Materiality is thus historical in the weak sense of being temporal, having a past with causal significance, but this is only analogously reflected by the progressive significance involved in the stronger sense of narrative history.

In contrast to the teleological account of historical progress, historical materialism should advocate an expressivist approach, wherein progress is a real feature of the ideal, socially valid realm. To understand this approach, we must first specify in the above terms what sort of historicity the normative realm has. Whereas the material realm has temporal historicity, and can only be analogously described in terms of narrative historicity, the normative realm is the exact inverse, having narrative historicity while only describable in temporal terms analogously. It may seem strange at first to say that norms are atemporal, but this matter is cleared up if we recognize that temporality is defined here is a matter of causality, and thus materiality, and that norms, being non-material, are not situated in the causal networks composing space-time. We can talk about the temporality of norms analogously by indexing them to their temporally situated conditions of manifestation, but the genesis and change of norms, while bound in relations of reciprocal influence with these conditions, is not itself temporal insofar as it is not causal. The history of norms does not have any causal significance at all, but it does have progressive significance.

If norms have a purely narrative historicity, it is because they only exist in terms of the narratives we tell ourselves, narratives which (at least according to a broadly Brandomian-Hegelian model) implicate the whole history in which norms pass from implicit to gradually more explicit states. To say these norms ever existed in some objective temporal realm independent of our attitudes is to reify them. Norms only ever exist in one or another narrative reconstruction, and while the various narratives intersect in interesting ways, they cannot be understood as being about something independent of narrativization. Narrative reconstructions of normative historicity do not interpret something temporal in terms of an imputed narrative significance, as norms do not exist outside of the socially-valid narrative significance they have for us. Norms are not external to their histories, or to the roles the play in a given narrative reconstruction, as they just are their narrative significance. Moreover, because standards of progress are ideal, and thus can only really apply to purely ideal entities, they therefore really apply to the history of norms, which consequently are really, and not only analogously, progressive. Indeed, while running together progressive and causal significance produces a suspect teleologism, we can account for the historical genesis and change of norms depicted in any given historical narrative in terms of the expressively progressive passage from implicitness to explicitness. Norms just are the histories through which they progress from more implicit to more explicit articulation, and these histories just are the narratives we create about the normative significance of our actions and statements.

The expressivist account of normative historicity is thus a progressivist account, in which norms become more explicit and their formulations become more rational over time (although, again, this ‘over time’ is internal to the narrative, and only analogously indexed to the actual past in which the norms were manifest). This runs directly against another commonplace interpretation of Marx which imputes to him teleologism, in which we are to read the necessity for social transformation off the material situation, rather than out of the socio-practical realm of norms. (Pete’s post, “Dissecting Norms”, which I linked to above, concludes with a very strong refutation of such teleologism, which he sees in one of Levi’s earlier discussions of Marx.)

The point of all this is that, while the ‘fundamental norms of rationality’ may be ahistorical in the sense of being already implicit in all rational discourse and action by virtue of its being rational, and thus are not relative to a given temporal-historical situation nor to a particular narrative-historical account, they are nonetheless thoroughly historical in the sense of only existing for historical narratives. They are not historically specific in the sense of being valid only for some specific historical period, but they are characterized by narrative historicity in that they do not exist apart from the activity of rational reconstruction of a progressive narrative (even if they are necessary and universal features of such historical accounts).

To repeat the arguments of the introduction, Levi seems to demand not only that these norms be localized in a particular narrative, but that this narrative be collapsed into the material-temporal situation in which it is manifest. This strikes me as distinctly non-Marxist move, in that it thereby collapses the socially-valid into the objectively-valid, a move to which ideology critique is directly opposed. But even if Levi wants to make the weaker claim that these norms, while not being temporally-specific in an objective sense, are nonetheless specific only to certain historical narratives, and thus cannot be generalized for all such accounts, he resists teleologism only to fall into historical relativism. If the norms of rationality can only belong to some specific narratives, this threatens to make rationality not a standard of progress that allows for the possibility of objective science and a genuinely emancipatory and egalitarian politics, but only a convention belonging to particular social constellations. Such a relativism about the structure of rationality therefore undermines the very ideals guiding Marx’s work. Nonetheless, we can resist this move by realizing that historicity is not equivalent to historical specificity.

Historical materialism is a progressivism regarding both science and politics, but because it insists on the division between the normative and the natural, this progress must be understood as expressive rather than teleological. The appearance of progress is only an effect of a rational reconstruction which supposes that something always implicit has become gradually more explicit. Yet while this appearance is only for us, because the whole normative realm is likewise for us, it has as much social-validity as the norms themselves. The point about the historical non-specificity of the norms of rationality is not that they have some objectively atemporal status (like all norms, they are non-objective), but that they must be implicit in every possible rational reconstruction, insofar as it is rational. The rational historical progress of any set of norms from implicit to explicit status depends upon the norms of rationality themselves being implicit. These norms are thus not historically specific, nor are they temporal, but this does not mean they are exempt from historicity. In this regard, they do not conflict with historical materialism, and insofar as they constitute the fundamental standards of social progress, they distinguish historical materialism absolutely from historical relativism.

Marx does think we have definitely improved upon our social conditions of existence, and that the achievement of communism will consummate this progress. Yet the bourgeois political economists also advocate a sense of progress, claiming that both the capitalist mode of production and the economic theories through which we understand it (although strictly speaking, the latter is included in the former) are the final consummation of a long process of development. What distinguishes Marx from his bourgeois opponents on the issue of progress is the manner in which they conceive the standard by which history is judged as being either progressive or not. For the latter, the current mode of production and its concomitant theoretical self-reflection is the telos of history, the best possible organization, and thus the ‘end of history’. For Marx, however, we cannot in this manner extricate the standard from its historical embeddedness. We may take the current state as the standard through which we evaluate history, but we can only do this in recognizing that future states will likewise hold themselves as standards against which we will be judged, and so too will our progressivist reconstruction of history. (This is how I understand Walter Benjamin’s critique of the concept of progress, which I will describe in more detail in a future post). This accountability or capacity to be held responsible by future generations is part of the fundamental structure of rationality.

Marx’s further critical move is to say that insofar as any given social organization is regarded as an ahistorical telos, attempting to exempt itself from critical evaluation, it thereby attempts to protect the existing state of affairs, which begs several questions: who would benefit from this insulation? Who is in a material position that is threatened by such a critical prerogative? And who is in a material position that is not threatened by such criticism, but on the contrary, threatened by the lack of criticism? Nonetheless, as I have shown above, appealing to an ahistorical telos falls foul not primarily because it appeals to something ahistorical, but because it treats something ideal as objective (the appearance of ahistoricity is only a ‘beneficial’ side-effect of this move).

Historical Materialism is historical not because nothing is exempt from material historicity (temporality), but because materialism itself is situated in an expressively progressive trajectory according to which the development of materialistic science is concomitant with the development of rational basis of social organization.

6. Conclusion

In the preceding I’ve shown how normative issues are not only not foreign to Marx’s work, but central to it. I’ve reconstructed the account of fetishism, which turns out to be primarily a matter of separating out norms from their reifying objectification. I’ve further tried to explain the historicity specific to both the natural and normative realms, and how this allows us to clarify the sense in which historical materialism is a historical materialism, as distinct from both teleologism and historical relativism.

I have no doubt that Levi, and many others, will find this interpretation of Marx to be counter-intuitive. Nonetheless, it is the most consistent reading of his oeuvre I can offer, and it furthermore helps clarify many issues that have plagued marxists for more than a century. Finally, I just want to say that while I am highly critical of the interpretation of Marx Levi champions, I hope he and others take this critical spirit as intended, out of solidarity in a common conviction to the importance of his work. I would do all marxists an injustice if I were not ruthlessly critical of approaches that seem to squander the critical force that binds me to those convictions.

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11 Responses to Normativity, Ideology, and Historicity in the Work of Karl Marx

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  11. Ross Wolfe says:

    I understand that this comment is coming almost a year too late, but if I may express my own opinions on the matter:

    You’re right to draw the connection between Kant’s transcendental notions of normativity and Marx’s early idea of “species-being.” Habermas is all-too-often too easily dismissed, because he ultimately abandons the political project of Marxism and focuses so explicitly on normativity. While I would agree with some of the general sentiments that Habermas drifts into positivism in his discourse on normativity, there is a sort of mute normativity at work in Marx’s own work. This is what earlier Frankfurt School theorists would have called “the standpoint of utopia” or “the concrete utopian possibility,” a position derived from the Kantian kingdom of ends, the kingdom of autonomy and freedom. The world described by Kant’s regulative ideals of transcendental freedom and moral autonomy is not the world we live in, for Marx, filled as it is with coercion, unfreedom, and heteronomy. But Marx uses the Kantian notion of “the world as it ought to be” to critique “the world as it is,” no matter what the historical realities and limitations might be. Unlike Kant, Marx believes that this kingdom of freedom is concretely attainable, something Kant only makes speculative gestures toward in his essays on history and freedom. Marx takes from Hegel the dialectical notion of history as a dynamic process of unfolding, determining relative norms and conventions. But Marx diverges from Hegel, siding with Kant, where Hegel famously equates the real with the rational, thereby eternally ratifying the present state of existence. Marx remains committed to a vision of the world as it ought to be, and a recognition of the seeds of possibility for that world within the constraints of the world as it is.

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