[OPE-L] Anne Fairchild Pomeroy Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Feb 17 2005 - 02:30:40 EST

Anne Fairchild Pomeroy
Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism
Pomeroy, Anne Fairchild, Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and
the Critique of Capitalism, SUNY Press, 2004, 231pp, $45.00 (hbk),
ISBN 0791459837.
Reviewed by Jeanne Schuler, Creighton University
Marx's texts are among the most demanding in modern thought, though
they are often short-changed by scholars and sidelined in the
curriculum. Marx's contributions are typically summed up in wooden
ways that do not open up a line of thinking or research.
Consequently, their impact on the practice of philosophy and the
social sciences is negligible. Why study Marx? The vocabulary is not
remarkable. But adequately reading the texts takes us beyond the
familiar modes of analysis to a largely unknown mode of thinking. Few
readers come prepared for the task. Marx's debt to Hegel is
acknowledged without grasping the pervasive difference in how Marx
understands knowledge and the modern world. His use of categories and
understanding of reality are not comparable to his contemporaries;
they are closer to Aristotle than to Kant. Marx is not a skeptic in
the mold of modern thinkers who first separate thought from
objectivity and then struggle to draw them together. Marx's
skepticism is directed at capitalism, not at truth or the possibility
of human understanding. With Marx, form is not contrasted with
content--as the subjective isolated from the objective--but social
form describes the specific purposes that characterize society in
pervasive ways. How do we appreciate a thinker who is not bedeviled
by the usual doubts and conundrums that hog-tie modern thought?
First, consider the obstacles to reading Marx. The standpoint of
conceptual polarity often frames debates about Marx. Is Marx an
idealist inspired by justice or a materialist who dismisses norms in
favor of empirical science? If Marx is a materialist, can he account
for a critical theory, such as his own? Are humans free to revolt or
determined by burdensome social conditions? If the present is shaped
by the past, how will non-capitalist social forms emerge from
capitalist society? How can negation arise within a totalizing form
of society? A major roadblock concerns the legend of the "two
Marxes": the young humanistic critic of capitalism and the older
systematic theorist of capitalism. Supposedly, the moral passion of
the young thinker disappears into the scientific mindedness of the
author of Capital. The later critique then fails to appreciate the
human agency and political life that generate social change. Norms
disappear as the intricate system of categories unfolds. Marx
delivers a theory but no longer clearly addresses exactly what is
unjust about capitalism or even how we could address this question.
Is labor the problem or does labor hold the key to human liberation?
Lurking behind the present neglect of Marx is the suspicion that
these texts primarily focus on communism and are thus refuted by
history, since communism is thoroughly discredited. As we see, the
path to engaging Marx's texts is obstructed from numerous directions.
Anne Pomeroy tackles these obstacles boldly by turning to Whitehead's
metaphysics in order to open up Marx's critique of capitalism. Her
proposal is striking on several grounds. Whitehead is not fabled for
accessibility; how can the arcane ideas of process philosophy shed
light on Marx's texts? Furthermore, Whitehead was not shaped by an
encounter with Marx's texts, and he pled ignorance concerning Hegel's
legacy. One thinker focuses on historically specific social forms;
the other identifies the encompassing dimensions of all reality. How
can such disparate projects be fruitfully joined?
Pomeroy reconceives the disparity between social critique and
metaphysics as a source of illumination, "a clash of doctrines . . is
an opportunity" (3). Marx and Whitehead are only apparently at
cross-purposes; actually both are "deeply innovative" in kindred
ways. With such notions as misplaced concreteness and dialectic,
Whitehead can clarify Marx's meanings. Confusion concerning Marx's
theory sets in when abstractions necessary for analysis are mistaken
for the concrete or the phenomenon. With the help of process thought,
readers of Marx can pay better attention to the "degrees of
abstraction" or "levels of specificity" that make up a critique,
thereby distinguishing the general abstractions that are applicable
to every society (such as use values) from the abstractions specific
to capitalism (exchange value).
The affinity between Marx and Whitehead that Pomeroy recognizes
exists on several levels: both thinkers situate ideas in experience
and history as fallible generalizations. Both begin with experience
and return to it; both identify the false dichotomies and
abstractions that mystify thought; both develop concepts that could
be described as dialectical. Both are said to rely upon internal
relations in their analyses: Marx at the level of "macrocosmic
empirical analysis of social production" (69) and Whitehead at the
microcosmic or metaphysical level of actual entities. Marx's category
of production is the functional equivalent of process in Whitehead's
thought. Both process and production share these features:
"Productive ability as the driving force behind world process
(creativity), creative dependence on the given as its source and
product (actuality), and thus deep interdependence of all elements of
reality on all others as mutually constituting (being as fully
relational)" (61). Persons--like the actual entities of
metaphysics--transform the given data in producing their world as new
(66). With the notion of internal relations--appropriated from
Leibniz by Whitehead--Pomeroy endeavors to dissolve intractable
standoffs, such as freedom/determinism, physical/conceptual,
one/many, or possibility/necessity, by showing how both dimensions
constitute each entity. Being determined by the past does not exclude
the emergence of possibilities in the present. Creativity is
fundamental to the emergence of things from prior conditions. What
ordinary habits of thought separate, process thought discloses as
inseparable. The basic ideas of Whitehead, in Pomeroy's hands, allow
us to get past the sterile readings of Marx and show the continuity
between the early and later texts. "Whitehead's metaphysics will
present us with new language . . . of feeling and relation . . .
mutual constitution and creativity . . . organicism and materialism .
. . language . . . rich with developmental possibilities" (14).
By appealing to process thought, Pomeroy locates normativity within
the most fundamental features of all things. To read Marx adequately
requires upheaval at the level of metaphysics. "The metaphysical is
itself the indictment" (195). Norms are not "outside reality." They
do not arise from feelings projected by subjects onto objects; norms
are not constructed; they are not planted on the subjective side of a
subjective/object divide. The normative dimension goes to the core of
reality; the critique of capital is generated by the tension between
the dialectical process that underlies all reality and the
undialectical form of capitalist production that impoverishes and
distorts basic features of reality.
For example, to understand what's wrong with wage labor is to grasp
the tension between the process of production--whereby individuals
constitute both self and their world--and the fixed quantity or wage
which is said to be the equal to this process. What is dead--the
wage--in principle cannot measure living labor. "The exchange of a
determination that is past for the human activity that is present(ed)
is absolutely illegitimate" (120). Pomeroy calls this the "first
injustice from which all the further injustices flow" (121).
Capitalism violates the "original ontological incommensurability of
persons and things" (122). To treat persons as objects exemplifies
In a similar way, the expropriation of surplus value separates
persons from the newness or excess that marks their activity as
"truly human." Pomeroy identifies the capitalist notion of "surplus"
with the metaphysical category of "novelty." Human labor is treated
as an object when stripped of this excess. The push to reduce
necessary labor in order to expropriate a larger surplus robs persons
of their inherent nature as creative. What constitutes the self and
its world must belong to the self. Capitalism unleashes human
creativity on a massive scale, but does not allow genuinely new
possibilities to arise. "Present creativity sparked by future
envisionment has been reduced to the abstract monetary expression of
the generalized past labor of my brothers and sisters. Their creative
lives have paid my wage and mine has paid theirs. We are the price of
. . . one another's enslavement" (124). The necessity under
capitalism to measure living labor in terms of the abstractions of
value violates our fundamental human character. The category of value
in the later Marx conveys with more precision the injustice expressed
in the young Marx's account of alienation. Capitalism does not
acknowledge human beings as free and creative, but simply compels
labor to pump out surplus value. Persons--the origins of value--come
to exist at the mercy of their products. "Value is really congealed
labor--that is the life blood, the potential and real creativity of
the human being hardened into mere physicality--into the not-human.
Subjective creativity is the absolutely unique and free . . .
activity of the individual, and capitalism requires that it be
treated as what it is essentially not and traded off for this
absolute other" (124).
Through Whitehead's lens, Pomeroy shows that capitalism is subject to
critique because it is metaphysically deficient. Though capitalism
cannot squelch metaphysical reality, a system founded on private
property diminishes the "relational solidarity" of this world. The
universe exists as process that constitutes each individual as
unique. But capitalism harnesses creativity to sameness, the ongoing
expansion of surplus value. Humans produce what is genuinely new, but
"as capitalism operates, the world grinds toward stagnation" (146).
Reality is dialectical--a whole constituted by interacting parts each
of which matters--but under capitalism, reduction, separation, and
abstraction take precedence over organic relations. Solidarity and
relational continuity describe how things are. When capitalism splits
apart nature, producers, owners, and consumers, it does not keep
faith with what is. "Capitalism is a disaster for processive reality"
(164). The volatility of capitalism originates in metaphysical
disruption and leads continually to economic crisis and destruction
of nature.
Understanding the differences between the thinkers is as important as
appreciating their similarities. Overall, Pomeroy respects the
distinctiveness of each thinker even as she coaxes real illumination
from this unusual encounter of minds. She is rightfully uneasy with
the duality that pervades Whitehead's thought. His dialectic situates
opposed factors as simultaneous and belonging together; this
philosophy of internal relations breaks through conceptual standoffs
by stipulating unity. This "binding together into unity" differs from
producing reconciliation through a process of thought. Neither Hegel
nor Marx says much about the meaning of dialectic, except to reject
any method that is treated as separable from the material. But in
practice, their initial accounts develop from empty abstractions to
more determinate or concrete concepts. The difference between
Whitehead's philosophy of internal relations and Marx's immanent
critique needs to be addressed more fully. For example, how does a
philosophy of internal relations convey external relations, such as
the externality of non-commodified human goods from market relations?
Pomeroy is most persuasive in showing how Whitehead's metaphysics
corrects the rigid demarcations that distort our reading of Marx's
texts; however, mapping metaphysical categories, such as creativity,
on to capitalist forms, such as surplus labor, itself runs the risk
of "misplaced concreteness." Necessary labor is no less creative than
the labor designated for the expansion of surplus value. The
differences between metaphysical generality and the specific forms of
capitalism cannot always be bridged directly. Pomeroy responds well
to the challenge of tailoring metaphysical categories to the specific
focus of a critical theory of capitalism in identifying what is
unique about human activity. Basic features of reality--such as the
conceptual and physical poles or the creative decisions of actual
entities--pertain to all entities. Pomeroy must adapt these general
features of the world to the specific labor of persons. The
differences between persons and the non-human world--such as
reflection or freedom--are matters of degree but are suffused with
One might wonder: can Whitehead succeed, where studies of Hegel
failed, to elucidate the deep structure of Marx's thought? Does
Whitehead's metaphysics improve our understanding of Marx's critical
theory? Under Pomeroy's hand, these texts are engaged in a fruitful
encounter. She moves between these demanding thinkers with persuasive
readings that reveal the politics implicit in process thought and the
sterility avoided by a conceptually richer approach to Marx. Pomeroy
writes with passion and clarity. Her analysis doesn't disappear into
the thicket of Whitehead's categories but stays focused on their
political and economic implications. She argues in a splendid way how
process thought anticipates new social relations. Her boldness is
rewarded with a well-written text that sheds light on both thinkers,
while addressing the tough issues raised by Marx's critique of

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