By Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, University of Massachusetts
Review essay published in Review of Radical Political Economics No. 41 (Sept 2008)
New Departures in Marxian Theory Stephen A. Resnick & Richard D. Wolff; Routledge, 2006, 418 pp.
For the past thirty years, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff have trodden a thought-provoking path of inquiry and examination that has resulted in an alternative way of understanding Marx’s contributions to politics, economics, and philosophy. Following the steps of Louis Althusser, Barry Hindess, Paul Hurst, and others, Resnick and Wolff have stressed how essentialist thinking has undermined the process of knowledge production and application within and outside of Marxism, a position that has brought them friends and foes alike.
In their new, edited book New Departures in Marxism, Resnick and Wolff provide us material that informed their previous book Knowledge and Class (1987) as well as work that was developed on the theory they laid out in that work.
The first section of the book, titled “Marxian Philosophy and Epistemology,” gives us a variety of essays that provide their elaboration of a non-rationalist, non-empiricist epistemology based on Marx’s epistemological break where “concepts, theories, and thought-concretes are not connected to the concrete-real as its essence or its truth” (R&W 2006: 42, emphasis in original), a position that implies unidirectional causation in exploring the connections between entities of a totality. It is here that Resnick and Wolff go beyond the possibility of bringing notions of bidirectional causation which might pass as vulgar dialectical thinking and instead they adopt the notion of overdetermination, where all aspects/entities of the totality shape and at the same time are shaped by all other aspects. From this it follows that dialectics is not restricted to change brought about by contradictions involving two opposing sides, but instead by the mutual contradictory interdependence of the entities that make up the social totality. In this sense, overdetermination implies that “all objects are conceived to exist in change” (ibid: 52, emphasis in original); entities are processes.
The use of an overdeterminist framework leads Resnick and Wolff to take various important positions regarding a variety of aspects. For example, in terms of the methodology of Marx’s Capital, the authors point out how the meanings of various concepts (i.e. profit) evolve as more determinations are added into the argument. It is here that Marx’s notion of abstraction differs from bourgeois thinking, where a “building block” static approach is used. From a Marxist overdeterminist perspective, one does indeed need to start somewhere, but that initial starting point will not only shape the determinants added in the theorization, but also be shaped by those determinants. Another important position that the authors take via their adoption of an overdeterminist epistemology is that the problem of class cannot claim to be the most important aspect of society, a position that seems to still prevail among essentialist readings of Marx, especially those of the economic reductionist variety which, for example, informed much of Soviet Marxism. Issues such as the environment, culture, race, and gender are not only as important as class, but also cannot be de-linked from it. It is here that Resnick and Wolff emphasize the need and possibility for political alliances from groups that represent alternative entry points in denouncing capitalism.
It must be noted that the call for an acceptance of epistemological pluralism and its subsequent negation of the notion of absolute truth – which implies that all truths are relative – that derives from Resnick and Wolff’s use and development of overdetermination, has been accused of paralleling bourgeois epistemology, where there is a “denial of a reliable ontological quotient” and a view that “somehow, we each (and all!) construct our own reality as we choose” (Kanth 1992: xvii, emphasis in original). Roy Bhaskar’s work (1986, 1989, 2008) informs the view that a primacy has to be given to ontology over epistemology given “that a real ontology limits and constrains epistemological possibilities in human society” (Kanth 1992: xviii). These ideas have provided the core for the Critical Realist movement (Lawson 2003) and it is surprising that a reaction is absent in Resnick and Wolff’s book given the small amount of replies from the post-Althusserian camp (Ruccio 2005 is one example).
In the second section of the book, titled “Class Analysis,” Resnick and Wolff apply their overdeterminist epistemology in examining what is the meaning of class in Marx. They approach class as a process involving the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor, where surplus labor refers to the labor performed by the worker above and beyond the labor necessary to sustain and reproduce him/herself. More specifically, the authors refer to the production and appropriation process as the fundamental class process, while the distribution and receipt is identified as the subsumed class process. This latter process is interpreted as the one that provides the conditions of existence for the fundamental class process to keep occurring. Class analysis therefore focuses on the contradictions brought about by these two processes.
Resnick and Wolff’s definition of class is clearly different from the definitions that have informed Marxism for most of its existence. In those other alternative definitions, which Marx himself used throughout his works, class refers to a group of people. More specifically, class has traditionally referred to two antagonistic groups whose relationships are defined in terms of property and/or power. Under capitalism, these groups are the capitalists and the workers. During feudalism it was the lord and the serf and under slavery it was the master and the slave. As Resnick and Wolff point out, the definition of class in terms of property and/or power has been present in social analysis from at least Plato and Aristotle. Marx’s insight is his focus on the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor, where property, for example, can be one possible condition of existence of such a process. In this view, then, there are not only multiple class structures present at any particular historical moment, but individuals and groups can occupy multiple class positions within various class structures at the same time.
With their definition of class, Resnick and Wolff have approached important debates within Marxian theory. One example is the productive/unproductive labor distinction that Marx (and before him Smith) developed, where productive labor is “labor which produces surplus value for its employer” (Marx 1967: 2). Much of the debate and its relation to the identification of a “working class” has revolved around the “definition of unproductive labor and the specification of its place in the social class structure” (R&W: 100). The authors utilize their fundamental/subsumed distinction for class structures to conclude that “unproductive workers are all Type 2 subsumed classes,” meaning the employees of merchants, money lenders, and other “directors of the economic, political, and cultural processes comprising the conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process” (ibid:99). The wages of these employees stem from the appropriated surplus value in the capitalist fundamental class process. What becomes an issue here is if these unproductive workers are actually exploited, another big debate within Marxism. The answer for Resnick and Wolff is a definite no; unproductive workers not only enable the exploitation of productive workers, but also benefit from it given that their wages come from the surplus value produced by the productive workers.
Although Resnick and Wolff are not the only ones to view the concept of exploitation as being applicable under capitalism only to productive workers (see for example Carchedi 1977) it seems some conceptual clarification is needed. Does the distinction of necessary to surplus labor only apply to productive workers even though unproductive workers can engage in socially necessary labor time that is beyond the amount of labor equivalent to maintain his/her labor power? In other words, are they engaging in surplus labor? Is this unpaid labor just a different form of appropriation of surplus labor (Burris 2005: 143)? Is not Marx’s specification of the rate of exploitation in terms of the rate of surplus value (Marx 1977: 326) for productive workers a specification of exploitation of labor power by capital (Shaikh and Tonak 1994: 30-31), thereby implying other types of exploitation by non-capitalist structures? Do they think that the term “oppression” might be a better one to describe the situation of unproductive workers, even thought they use this term to apply to a political rather than an economic process (R&W 2006: 162)? These are all preoccupations that in my opinion should have been treated in a more explicit manner by the authors given the contending views within this specific literature.
In parts three and four, titled “Marxian Economic Theory” and “Criticisms and Comparisons of Economic Theories” respectively, the authors deploy their framework to examine the diverse implications the use of an overdeterminist lens has in viewing topics and developments within Marxism and how other alternative/contending theories informed by essentialism compare and contrast to theirs. For example, in the chapter titled “Radical Economics: A Tradition of Theoretical Differences,” Resnick and Wolff examine the different entry-points that inform alternative radical theories and how they make essentialist claims about the importance of their struggles, be it in terms of property, power, consciousness, accumulation, or technology struggles. For the authors, such discourses hamper any possibility of organizing a unified front against the ills of capitalism, and of course they also fail to understand that class, when defined in terms of the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor, is yet another important item in the struggle. In the final section devoted to history, the authors use their framework to take a look at what happens at different sites of production of surplus labor, such as the household, and how oscillations from private to state capitalism within the United States affect and are affected by such sites. They also compare their definition of a “communist class structure” with the variety of historical and theoretical views on what communism and socialism are to then give a broad perspective on what general characteristics an alternative social organization might have that will hopefully succeed in substituting capitalism and its exploitation.
Anyone interested in being exposed to different ways of thinking and understanding, specifically within economics, must definitely read this book. The consciousness of alternatives that Resnick and Wolff bring in terms of the array of different struggles that should be imbedded in any serious movement against capitalism is extremely refreshing and yet it is also a matter of concern to those who recognize the complex uphill struggle that faces all of us who want to make a difference.
Bhaskar, R. 1986. Scientific realism and human emancipation. London: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. 1989. Reclaiming reality. London: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. 2008. A realist theory of science. Routledge.
Burris, V. 2005. Class structure and political ideology. In Enriching the sociological imagination: How radical sociology changed the discipline, ed. R. Levine, 139-164. Paradigm Publishers.
Cachedi, G. 1977. On the economic identification of social classes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kanth, R. 1992. Capitalism and social theory: The science of black holes. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
Lawson, T. 2003. Reorienting economics (Economics as a social theory). Routledge. Downloaded from http://rrp.sagepub.com
at UNIV MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST on December 16, 2009.
Marx, K. 1977. Capital, vol. 1. Trans. B. Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books.
Resnick, S., and R. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and class: A Marxian critique of political economy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Resnick, S., and R. Wolff. 2006. New departures in Marxian theory. Routledge.
Ruccio, D. 2005. (Un)Real criticism. Post Autistic Economics Review (35). Available at http://www.paecon
Shaikh, A., and E. Tonak. 1994. Measuring the wealth of nations. Cambridge University Press
By Bruce Norton, Department of Economics, San Antonio College
Review essay published in Socialism and Democracy No. 49 (March 2009)
Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, eds., New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006)
In a paper in this volume Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff contend that human subjects are constituted by ever-changing and always-contradictory determinations. Like other entities, from institutions to words, people are overdetermined, constituted by the influences of all the aspects of their lives. Such subjects therefore exist “in contradiction or ceaseless change,” pushed “in contrary behavioral directions at any one moment” (54). Over time they are propelled toward an evolution which is “inevitably jumpy, non-smooth, and generally deeply uneven in character” (55).
While that may be so, one encounters in the book a singularly focused project which has been sustained and deepened for more than twenty-five years now. The authors pursue today the goal they announced in the late 1970s: to develop a non-reductionist and class-focused Marxian theory; to use the new point of view to critically analyze other frameworks and arguments, old and new; and to rethink the world afresh. The book’s seventeen reprinted essays (dating from 1982 to 2003) and helpful new introduction allow the reader to experience something of the drama of this new thinking as it has developed over time. In their general commitment, however, the articles are of one piece. Whatever uneven and incessantly changing contradictions may have shaped the human subjects who produced this work (and as economists working orthogonally to their discipline, they no doubt experienced adverse professional pressures), time and change seem to have sustained and renewed the effort rather than disrupting or deflecting it.
Presumably the authors’ sustained energy is due in part to the fact that the project, a big one, has yielded big rewards. First of all they have changed the world’s understanding of Marx: they have read Capital and Theories of Surplus Value in a new way. As they argue, Marx is concerned in those volumes to visualize and understand capitalist class processes. Marx’s class theory differs, however, from the one that many Marxists have found in his work. It is not focused on a binary opposition between worker and capitalist. Nor is it defined by differential access to power or property, as some who emphasize binary capitalist/worker conflict (or who, like Poulantzas, have sought to identify “middle” class positions on the basis of power or property positions lying in between the extremes) have had it. Nor, one might add, is Marx’s class-theoretic work in Capital simply functional to a more important quest to identify an essential contradiction thought to fuel capitalism’s inevitable decline (as, for example, falling rate of profit theorists find in the antagonistic binary confrontation between inexorably accumulating capitalists and exploitation-resisting workers which they contend makes a rising organic composition of capital inevitable).
Rather, Marx introduced into social thought a perspective so different from mainstream traditions that even Marxist economists subsequently repressed it. The capitalist class processes he endeavored to theorize are processes of surplus labor performance, appropriation, and distribution, and these are in themselves proper objects for a specifically Marxian theory to focus upon. As Resnick and Wolff describe in the introduction,
We took Marx’s key insights to be (1) that all societies organize a portion of their members to produce a surplus output (a quantum beyond the portions that the producers themselves consume and use up as inputs into production), and (2) that societies differ according to how they arrange the production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus among their members.
Therefore class analysis of social life is called for, and class analysis
… became, for us, the exposure of who produced and appropriated surpluses within that society, who received distributions of that surplus from the appropriators, and how the larger social context (its politics, culture, economy and history) both shaped and was shaped by these class processes.
Marxian economics’ potential contribution to social theory thus becomes first of all just this – the introduction into human conversations of an economic aspect of social life which other frameworks can’t or won’t envision: class processes.
The framework has changed traditional understandings of Marx in several ways. It moved open-ended analysis of` the distribution of surplus (not simply its production and appropriation) directly to the analytical foreground. In doing so it cast a new light on Marx’s detailed endeavors, particularly in volume III of Capital, to theorize the class position of agents such as merchants, money-lenders, landlords, supervisory managers and various other contributors to the functioning of capitalist enterprises who receive cuts of surplus value in return for the services they provide. Far from the “subject of secondary interest” Marxist economists had traditionally construed them as (as Baran and Sweezy put it in Monopoly Capital, 112f), modes of surplus utilization other than for capitalist consumption or accumulation become in the new framework in good part the very fabric of the theoretical effort. In several of the essays in this volume (notably 3, 5, and 9), the authors systematize and extend Marx’s forays, analyzing the “subsumed class processes” through which various functionaries receive cuts of surplus value. In several others (notably 10 and 11), the capitalist firm is opened up for analysis, in effect, as something more than simply a surplus value appropriator and capital accumulator. Resnick and Wolff’s firm has become something new in the annals of Marxian economics, a complex and ever-changing distributor of the surplus value it appropriates (and indeed a receiver and distributor of such non-class and subsumed class incomes – from consumer credit provision [non-class], or ownership of stock in other firms [subsumed class], for example – as it might be able to obtain as well).
If Resnick and Wolff attach due importance to Marx’s conceptions of surplus labor appropriation and distribution, they are just as insistent in embracing a second defining characteristic they see in Marx: a radically anti-determinist way of linking class and other economic aspects of life with one another and with non-economic dimensions. Indeed the book starts with these issues rather than with class. Part 1 (“Marxian Philosophy and Epistemology”) presents four particularly compelling essays on causality, complexity, and thinking. Accessible and provocative, they offer probably as stimulating a discussion of Marxian anti-determinism, overdetermination, and epistemology as the authors have yet provided in any one place.
We might note that particular implications of the anti-determinist thinking developed in Part 1 have already appeared in the discussion of class above. Resnick and Wolff’s class theory is different from others in that it concerns processes and within them positions (such as performer or appropriator of surplus value, distributor or receiver of surplus value), rather than identities. Hence people are free to occupy multiple class positions, at any one time and over the course of their lives. Capitalist firms are very likely to have substantial non-capitalist dimensions. And class processes do not solely occur in firms. In an important essay (chapter 8, written with Harriet Fraad), the authors extend their class analysis to the performance of labor within households in the United States (in feudal, ancient, and communist forms), and link recent crises in household surplus labor performance to crises in the US extra-household economy.
More generally, as the reader of Part 1 will find, Resnick and Wolff will not back down from their thoroughgoing commitment to overdetermination, a term they adapted from Althusser, who adapted it from Freud and perhaps Lukács, and which refers to the sorts of mutually constitutive causality the Marxian tradition at its most anti-reductionist has long envisioned. As the authors insist, the world is overdetermined: the very existence of any one process (production of surplus value, for example) is entirely and inescapably constituted by the combined effects of all the other processes (economic, cultural, political and natural) which enable it to occur. Thus no ranking of social processes or entities on the basis of their relative causal importance can be made. If none exists prior to or without the effects of the others, a division between supposedly causal forces on one side and supposedly secondary aspects on the other, pace positivist social science, makes no sense. One faces instead an ever changing world made up of parts or aspects each of which conditions the others and each of which is in turn complexly conditioned.
How then is a thinker to proceed? Resnick and Wolff suggest an understanding of theory construction consonant with their general framework. One should not worry about the impossibility of capturing in thought the infinite complexity of social life: no theory captures being in thought (and both rationalist and empiricist epistemologies are rejected). In the Marxian epistemology the authors propose, thinking is an activity just as much pushed and pulled by other aspects of life as any other activity. Theorists must of necessity proceed by picking initial ways to begin making sense of the complexities. Theories or frameworks differ both by virtue of their initial concerns (or “entry-points”) and by virtue of the particular ways they choose to link their entry points with other aspects of life. In short,
Analysts differ not only in terms of which social and natural processes they single out as their respective entry point, but also in terms of how they connect their entry point processes to all the others that comprise the complex objects of their analyses. Overdetermination implies that the world of theory is a world of difference: differently socialized schools of analysis constructing different understandings that influence and contest with one another. No one theory says or captures it all; none analyzes “best”; none ever has. (56)
That doesn’t mean that theorists shouldn’t struggle to promote what they see as the virtues of their own point of view, however. Equipped with antennae especially attuned to differences in entry point and relational concepts, Resnick and Wolff are exceptionally skilled in sorting out other theorists’ frameworks, identifying weaknesses, and pinpointing how these other frameworks differ from their own preferred overdeterminationist and class-theoretic approach. Along these lines, these essays elaborate telling critiques of neoclassical economics, including, at various points, its concepts of consumer sovereignty (61-63), efficiency (303-305), the rational economic person (267-272), and so on. They probe Keynesian “structuralist” tendencies as they endlessly confront (and sometimes combine with) neoclassical “humanism” in the economics profession (essay 12, written with Jack Amariglio), and analyze why both tendencies refuse to admit heterodox schools within economics’ disciplinary boundaries. They discuss the radical economics and game-theoretic perspective of Bowles and Gintis, another kind of (power-theoretic) humanism as they see it (60-61, 290-293). They neatly and revealingly sort out radical economics traditions (essay 13), and class-theoretic schools (essay 6) of various kinds.
The most gripping drama of the book may lie elsewhere though. What early on troubled even some of its advocates was not the perspective’s suitability for critique, but its suitability for the other kind of job at hand, concrete analysis. Deprived of an essence to depict and resultant effects to trace – faced instead with a world of complexly interacting and ever-changing processes – how does one begin to describe the world? More precisely: might the fear of pursuing essentialist reasoning stop practitioners from pursuing any relatively concrete reasoning at all? Over the course of the twenty years during which these papers were produced, Resnick and Wolff took major steps toward confronting and solving this problem, and a good deal of path-breaking concrete analysis resulted. For a clear statement of their solution see especially essay 4, pages 79-88, wherein Wolff suggests that anti-essentialist theorists are obliged, of necessity, to begin with essentialist argumentation, which is then “negated” both by its inclusion within an explicitly anti-essentialist framework and by a succession of theoretical moments in which, to start with, “a second subset of overdeterminants” of the object of explanation is introduced, its influences on that phenomenon explored, and due recognition made of how that second subset’s “inclusion in the explanation changes the relation posed in the initial essentialism” (83, italics in original). Perhaps fortified by the license for initial simplicity such considerations grant the historical narrator, during these years the authors carried out a class analysis of the Soviet Union and began a class analysis of the United States, important pieces of each endeavor being represented here (essays 15, 16, and 17). Not surprisingly, both are startlingly new.
In terms of its processes of surplus labor performance and distribution, the Soviet Union remained predominantly state capitalist throughout its existence, save for collective farms which did indeed use communal class processes for a period before World War II (essay 16). Thus “(i)n the USSR, arguably the most sustained and ambitious effort to date to move toward a communist class structure, only a very modest and temporary such movement was actually accomplished” (334). With the rise and fall of the Soviet economy, we are then confronted with “the almost tragicomic truth that a century of hot debate over socialism/communism versus capitalism masked a set of oscillations from private to state to private capitalisms (339).” Resnick and Wolff outline an analysis of the Soviet experience along these lines and suggest some ways in which that history also recasts the history of Marxian economic thought, leaving its positive class analytic endeavors, particularly as concerns communist class structures, still at a very early point of development.
The essay which concludes the volume takes up the United States. Entitled “Class, Exploitation, and the Uniqueness of US Capitalism,” it situates US capitalism’s most visible and reliable “success,” its ability to raise worker consumption standards over time, as one aspect of a larger capitalist success story, massive relative surplus value production along the lines Marx himself delineates at length in volume one of Capital. On a scale scarcely matched elsewhere, as they contend, rising productivity in wage-goods-producing industries in the United States has made possible (at least until recently) both rising real wages and a decrease in the fraction of overall labor time needed to produce those wage goods. Thus in Marxian terms the rate of exploitation, or ratio of surplus labor time to necessary labor time, has risen dramatically even while worker consumption standards were climbing. The society which has developed in tandem with these forces has also starkly tended to privatize consumption increases. If these patterns underlie US capitalism’s success, as Resnick and Wolff argue, they also structure its weakness and failure. Deploying their new willingness to connect and narrate, rather than simply identify and disarticulate, the authors tie social dysfunction and worker suffering – in family life, depleted public arenas, and psychic functioning – to capitalist exploitation, and specifically to its uniquely intense US form. Reminiscent of Baran and Sweezy’s holistic critique in Monopoly Capital (1966) in scope and ambition, the framework is however also an entirely different Marxian vision. It starts from class, rather than from purported patterns of capitalist accumulation, and within the overarching narrative which results, it struggles to retain and deepen a commitment to a fully relational, rather than foundational, conception of human affairs.