[OPE-L] Famous last words - or a swan song (was: Althusser)

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Feb 12 2007 - 19:36:36 EST

I don't really like having the last word, because I don't think it is
radical and profound to have the last word. But I suppose that if I start a
conversation, then civility demands I finish it.

Paul wrote:

What about Hindess and Hirst's book Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production ?

Checking memory, I never read that one. I read Cutler, Hindness, Hirst and
Hussain. I used Hussain in a research paper for my MA, and I have Hirst on
the shelf.

When reading Perry Anderson in the 70s I thought that he did not adequately
think through the economic level, particularly the technological changes
that occured between late antiquity and the middle ages.

That is more a comment about me, than about Perry Anderson. I liked and
respected Perry Anderson, insofar as he did what he promised, and because of
his genuine sense of history. I always disliked his use of language though.
You have to write so that ordinary folks can follow it, that is what I feel,
and to that extent I also liked the way Ernest Mandel wrote, although in the
end I got bored with it, because he was repeating himself too much, as a
propagandist would. Somebody like Anderson who has a superb command of
language, ought to write, so that young ordinary folks eager for knowledge
can really follow it, so that they NEED to follow it, because it is crisp,
stark, compelling, no bullshit, setting out the contradictions of life very
cleary, you cannot miss it for a mile.

Jerry wrote:

The issue, as I
understand it, is not _whether_ empirical research should be done, but
_how_ it should be done.  The Althusserian concept of overdetermination
could be used, for instance, to highlight some problems with which analysts
from some other theoretical perspectives go about doing empirical, including
historical, research.

In a sense you must be right, but point is Althusser doesn't really tell you
how it is to be done. He tells you, what to make of it, once you have done
it, in typical French fashion. But really... he tells you what to make of
it, before you have even done anything already. In this sense you're better
off with Bourdieu or somebody like that. Overdetermination? The point really
is this: overdetermination implies a causal principle according to which the
whole determines the parts, it is just another way of talking about
"methodological holism". We live in this society you see, and the totality
of that, impacts on us, just as our individual actions impact on the
totality, however feebly. But the point is that you have to explain
specifically  *how* the whole determines the part in the given case, and
Althusser doesn't do it. He just has this "philosophy" about it, with
various categories. He doesn't really solve the so-called "transformation
problem", he has a "philosophy" about it. And I think we are better off
there with people like Ian Wright, who really want to count the horse's
teeth, and have considerable competence in doing that. You are forgetting
the dour Stalinism that was the milieu that Althusser grew up with - i.e.
the Central Committee of the PCF, or its chairman, has a hotline to the
truth of what Marx & Engels really meant, the laws of motion of history, and
so on, elaborated by the party ideologists, transmitted to the cadres, and
then to the ordinary members to prosytelise to the working class.

Jerry also wrote:

There are also a whole host of others who have been influenced by
Althusserianism -- on this list, for example, Allin, Paul C, and Paul Z
come to mind.  You can agree or disagree with what they've written,
but I think it's only fair to note that  _in practice_ they recognized the
importance of  empirical research.

Well there again you are saying something that it impossible to disagree
with. I highly respect Allin & Cottrell, although I differ on the topic of
unequal exchange, which I think is a real force in the world (impatiently, I
got a bit crude in my replies to Paul, which I regret, and I wrote to him
about it). Research in Political Economy inspired me as a student. I differ
with Paul Z. on primitive (or original) accumulation as I said, because I
see it as an ongoing process. Indeed Althusser inspired me as a student,
insofar as he said "think about social structures". Moreover, he gave us the
insight that an economic crisis gives rise to a social crisis, the social
crisis prompts a political crisis, and the political crisis eventually
prompts a crisis of bourgeois ideology, a crisis of the legitimacy of
bourgeois rule, resolved either in favour of the ruling classes or the
subordinate classes, or some kind of rotten compromise. Nowadays of course I
tend to think this fixation about "structure" is more a management
preoccupation, and that in truth before Levi Strauss became popular, Polish
scholars (among others) had already thought of it, etc., i.e. that this idea
had been around for a long time, before it got popular in Western academia.

My own retro view is that 95% of what I read about Marx and Marxism (I read
quite a bit in the 1980s) was basically bullshit, however enlightening it
may have been about other issues. My own view is, that there still isn't an
acceptable biography of Marx and Engels. The truth is often in the heresies,
to borrow a phrase used by Isaac Deutscher. So if you want my advice, to
modify Althusser, it is: "Lire Marx et Engels". That will make you think,
including about fighting wars that you cannot win anyway. A real follower of
Marx & Engels doesn't fight for the sake of fighting, he fights because s/he
thinks he has a genuine chance of winning, and that the world is really
better off, if s/he wins. Only then can the follower become a leader.

The basic political problem of our times, I think is that there is too much
talk about what might/could/would/should happen, and not enough about what
actually does happen and has happened. There are all these anxieties and
speculations being whipped up, instead of solid verification. I believe it
takes good social science to reveal what is really happening, and that Marx
& Engels did their bit there. But if we are constantly preoccupied with
issues such as whether social science is really a science, why it is a
science or not a science, or what scientificity is anyway, we are simply not
really finding out the things that people jolly well ought to know about
their social world. And civil society is the poorer for it.

I believe you didn't need spies, to understand Iraq was no genuine "threat"
to the United States in 2001 or 2002. Social science can tell you that Iran
is no real "threat" in 2007. It's bullshit, scientifically speaking. If the
political elites confront us with another hoax like that, I'm likely to do
something very drastic to make the point. The rotten part of postmodernism
is, that in the end it creates unrealistic doubts about our ability to know
things and act on them, to the point where we doubt our ability to do even
the most simplest things, using our own good sense and ability to find out.
And then we end up spending most of our energy and time trying to resolve
doubts and myths, instead of getting on with better things. Doubt and
skepticism become a real pest, and in fact I am now studying alone at home
the question of the "human will" as such.

"Once the veils of mystification are stripped away, the image is Kafka's
world: women, who are never permitted to dream; men, who if they dream must
put away their dreams; men and women condemned to an eternal punishment - to
carry the whole parasitical mass of capital on their backs, generation upon
generation. The trap is made by neither husband nor wife: the wife blames
the husband for her dependency, for his resentment and his harsh treatment,
for his complicity in the injustice of "woman's place"; the man resents the
woman for the burden she represents, the demands she has, the complaints she
makes. A wife is a bribe to the husband, but she is also his chain; a
husband is security to the wife, but also her prison. Thus each is to a
greater or lesser degree divided against the other. And over all of this is
the dead weight of capital, whose mechanisms of competition and apparatus
for the production of poisonous belief turn men against women, white against
black, nation against nation." -



you know life can be long
and you got to be strong
and the world is so tough
sometimes i feel i've had
enough. oh no, oh no.
how can we go forward
when i don't know which way we're facing?
how can we go forward
when we don't know which way to turn?
how can we go forward
into something we're not sure of?
oh no, oh no.

- John Lennon, "How?" (the "oh no" bit was obviously a reference to "Ono",
i.e. Yoko Ono, who sorted things out considerably for him).

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