[OPE-L] exploitation and abstraction

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sat Jun 30 2007 - 06:19:34 EDT

Hi Jerry,

You asked:

What authors do you think have used levels of abstraction as a "subterfuge"?

To be honest I do not have a really good example here at home just now, to
show you what I mean. I am recalling discussions occurring at the time I was
a varsity student in 1978-1982 when Althusserianism was influential among
social scientists. But you often strike it in the transformation problem
literature - "Marx's method of abstraction" is supposed to explain why there
is no problem and so on, or, if we follow his method of abstraction then
there is no problem. Which is to say that what he says is allegedly true,
because of his method of abstraction. But if I say, "X is true, because I
say that it ought to be theorised in a certain way, and if it is theorised
in that way, it is true" then I am not saying much, other than that my
meanings are true, if you adopt them as true. I have to explain at least why
X has to be theorised in that way rather than another way, or why you ought
to adopt my theory rather than another one, otherwise my position is
arbitrary or fiduciary.

The substantive point is that economic life is a complex process, a totality
with many interconnected circuits mutually influencing each other, which
could be studied from a variety of angles, and it gives rise to all kinds of
theorems which hold "other things being equal", i.e. ceteris paribus. Indeed
Marx first studied economic laws in their ""pure form" and then tried to
integrate various factors which modified the laws. His argument is that the
valid procedure is one, which allows all the theorems to be contained within
one system which consistently explains cases in which "others things are not
equal" or why the exception proves the rule. A theorem or description has a
certain validity at a certain level of generality and in a certain context,
but at a lower or higher level of generality (at a level of greater or
lesser specificity) the theorem or description must be qualified, because it
applies only with certain conditionals. The process of redefinition and
qualifying can occur consistently in a methodical way, or it can occur in a
slipshod manner. It can be disciplined by logic and experience, or occur in
an arbitrary way. It can be eclectic or systematic.

Marx says: "In the analysis of economic forms... neither microscopes nor
chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both."

But he goes on to explain directly thereafter that he doesn't just abstract
willy-nilly for the sake of a story, or start from a principle, rather he
studied England as the locus classicus of the capitalist mode of production,
and abstracted from this historical example (and the theories made about it)
what he thought to be the general laws of this mode of production. So the
abstraction is a generalisation from experience. He tries to write it up, in
a way which shows how each of the contradictions implied by commercial trade
are practically resolved and mediated, but also how these solutions
themselves give rise to fresh contradictions.

But with Althusser you get a very different interpretation. Althusser claims
boldly that "the concept of history can no longer be empirical, i.e.
historical" (Reading Capital, p. 105). In fact, history becomes
unhistorical, and quite consistent with this idea, Althusser indeed
explicitly calls the totality of structured structures he identifies an
"eternity" in a Spinozist metaphysical sense of self-causing, infinite in
its kind, and necessarily existing. But this is merely a sophistical,
grandiose way of saying that if I want to cognise changes in the passing of
time, I can do so only with the aid of a referent which remains constant. I
cannot have a variable without a constant, I cannot fully define finitude
without infinity, and so on.

Real history must then be made to conform to Althusser's eternal,
superhistorical concepts. But Spinoza is not Marx, and Althusser in fact
adopts an approach which is diametrically opposed to Marx & Engels.
Althussser doesn't abstract from a real empirical object, instead he has
this hierarchy of abstractions already, which he wants to superimpose on
empirical reality. And he wants to endow these abstractions with a special,
privileged status a priori, in advance of experience, rather than validate
them in the course of empirical research. From there, we get arguments that
a claim is true, because it is stated at a certain level of abstraction, and
if it turns out not to be true, it must be because it is stated at another
level of abstraction or the wrong level of abstraction.

But this is childish and vulgar, because we can go round and round
redefining things ad nauseam, and something will always be true at a certain
level of abstraction and false at another, you can go any which way with it.
Althusser has these generalisations to which real history must be made to
conform, and therefore the critical question of how we arrive at our
generalisations doesn't even arise. In the end, all it boils down to, is the
claim "Marx said so, therefore it is true" which is a dogma or argument from
authority. Glucksmann has this funny critique of Althusser's Stalinism which
he calls "a ventriloquist's structuralism" (who whispers the lines? how do
we know?) but in the end it's a quasi-religion, a faith in a theory
independent of its actual application. Whether or not a level of abstraction
is appropriate cannot be simply dictated by a logical method, rather its
appropriateness is determined by the actual requirements of an analysis of
empirical reality.

In the first edition of his excellent little book "What is this thing called
science?", Alan F. Chalmers was still an Althusserian, but in the subsequent
editions he removed the Althusserian part. That's quite correct, because
Althusserianism isn't science, at best only theory. What Althusser wanted to
do is attack empiricism, and he ends up with theoreticism. But why does he
attack empiricism? Quite simply because the facts of experience contradict
the theory, and he wants to keep the theory. But that is just to say "I
don't know how to develop my theory so that it explains, that those things
which appear to contradict it in reality, are really quite consistent with
the theory". Compare this to Marx's discussion of the law of value: "if one
wanted to 'explain' from the outset all phenomena that apparently contradict
the law, one would have to provide the science before the science." And that
is exactly what Althusser does: he wants to provide the science before he
has actually done any.


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