[OPE] Question to Marxologists: Mode of production

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Wed Sep 03 2008 - 02:44:05 EDT

Actually, Paul, I wasn't using computers in 1979, I began to use those only in 1983, i.e. after I graduated. I just had a typewriter up to that time, I learnt to type on an old Remington portable I got from my Grandfather when I was ten years old. I drew the original diagram on paper when I had to write an assignment on Marx's definition of "mode of production". Actually, under "means of labour" I also distinguished between the "object of labour" and the "instruments of labour".

In reply to Jerry: what Althusser says does matter, because he is the one who invented a distinction between mode of production and social formation, and in the process he gets both concepts wrong. It misled a whole generation of scholars, and does a disservice to the credibility of Marx's approach.

In Althusser's theory, the mode of production is an organically self-reproducing structure, and human history can be periodised in terms of the dominant mode of production. This interpretation has nothing to do with Marx, if you are prepared to read carefully what Marx says.

A mode of production is not a self-reproducing structure, because it cannot exist without a mode of distribution, circulation and consumption (the totality of economic life), and is usually dependent on state political authority or tribal political authority, and the absence or presence of natural resources, for its reproduction. If those authorities and resources are destroyed, economic life disintegrates as well.

Marx does not say a mode of production is an independent structure, but rather that the relations of production form the economic structure of society (where society is defined as the ensemble of human relations) - these relations are the real basis for a superstructure of legal, political and ideological relationships which grow up around them. What Marx says is that "In broad outline, the Asiatic, antique, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production can be regarded as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society". This is not a statement of periodisation, but a statement about the progress of civil society. By the "economic formation of society" Marx means that economic development and growth, which makes population growth possible, generates more and more new human relations quantitatively, and develops/differentiates those relations qualitatively more and more.

The concept of "social formation" is crucially vague. It could mean just "a society", or it could mean "a nation" or "nation state", or it could mean "a community of people in a given area", or it could mean "world society", or it could mean "any aggregation of associated individuals". Vague concepts of course provide no real orientation for analysis.

Althusser like Kozo Uno made the mistake of presenting Marx's unfinished theory as a finished theory. Then, as an afterthought, Althusser engages in a bit of extra structural functionalist sociology, explaining that the "Ideological State Apparatuses" serve to reproduce society. All of this mystifies the dialectic of social order and social change, and the dialectic of structure and agency. If the institutions that conserve society are for some reason dysfunctional, Althusser just sprinkles in a bit a class struggle.

When Perry Anderson introduced Althusser to an English-speaking audience, he intended it to be an anti-dote to blinkered British empiricism, and he wrote his creditable books "Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism", and "Lineages of the Absolutist state". But actually, Althusserianism mainly inspired not historical research, but supremely abstract theoreticist pontifications stating metaphors and typologies, which are lampooned by E.P. Thompson in "The Poverty of Theory".


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Received on Wed Sep 3 02:46:50 2008

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