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Breaking the Violent Abstraction of Eurocentrism

by Llewellyn Williams-Brooks on August 1, 2016

This is the first in a series of posts for the Unconventional Wisdom section of the Progress in Political Economy blog, written by Honours students within the Department of Political Economy. It stems from the cohort of Honours students that took the unit coordinated by Adam Morton entitled ECOP4001 Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism. Here we showcase the work that some of the students produced on that unit in order to reflect on the sorts of debates that undergraduates are currently engaging.


…the properties bestowed on material objects in the capitalist economy are, Marx holds, real and not the product of imagination. But they are not natural properties, they are social. They constitute real powers, uncontrolled by, indeed holding sway over, human beings; objective ‘forms of appearance’ of the economic relationships definitive of capitalism… This is how capitalism presents itself: in disguise! — Norman Geras

SayerIn this blog post I argue that the philosophy of internal relations and the method of abstraction are crucial in understanding and utilising Karl Marx’s conception of historical materialism. To exemplify this point, I contrast Derek Sayer’s restorative analysis of the social aspects of productive forces with Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Political Marxism. I suggest that Political Marxism is particularly well equipped to deal with transitions to capitalism, although the issue of Eurocentricity is a serious limitation to this explanation. I argue that Sebastian Rioux’s and Jairus Banaji’s usage of abstraction in ‘theory as history’ is an important response to Political Marxism. Having contributed to this argument, I conclude that if internal relations is the hallmark of historical materialism, abstraction is a necessary epistemological and methodological component of this analysis. This claim is founded on Bertell Ollman’s analysis of abstraction and internal relations.

Marx’s ontology presents social reality as internally related, determined holistically (dialectically) by historical material processes. In contrast to this approach, when Marx endeavours to explain a ‘layer’ of this analysis, he uses abstraction as a methodological framework. According to Ollman, Marx employs three types of abstraction: limiting inclusivity of generality in space and time (extension); the general qualities emerging in one layer of reality (generality); and the experience of class and agent subjectivity as an emergent phenomena in historic time (vantage point). From the perspective of internal relations, abstractions which do not amount to Marx’s ontology commit a ‘violent’ abstraction. That is,  these abstractions present a framework of things in non-historic (universalising) time, distorting social reality and inhibiting a historical materialist analysis. In Capital, Vol.1, Marx forwards this argument to challenge classical political economy’s fetishisation of exchange relations, which they do without exploring the production and exploitation components of production. The identification of violent abstraction, therefore, can be used to critique interpretations that deviate from Marx’s historical materialism.

Derek Sayer critiques the violence of abstraction that emerges from analysis that separates the social and economic aspects of production. The hallmark of this duality is Gerald Cohen’s primacy thesis as articulated in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. In analysing the dynamics of capitalist transition from feudalism, Cohen argues that the interactive compatibility of the economic forces with the social relations of production generate the potential for development and transformation of these relations. Sayer responds that this separation represents a duality that reduces the social aspects of the forces of production to a technological determinism. This, he continues, is a primary characteristic of orthodox Marxism, which fetishises the social relations of historic actors. Ellen Meiksins Wood arguably continues this line of reasoning, in criticising the role that Post-Marxism and Post-Modernism have had in fragmenting the unifying qualities of historical materialism. Marx’s explanatory strength, she argues, lies in his critique of the specificity and logic of capitalism. The dialectical nature of this critique cannot emerge in the both ‘humanistic’ and ‘technological’ determinist interpretations of Marx as they ignore the integrative analysis that Marx employs. This analysis comes to suggest that, in contrast to other philosophical methodologies, Marxism is uniquely able to explore the content of form and analyse the material foundations of the emergence of ideas.

WoodEllen Meiksins Wood’s Political Marxism, retains a commitment to Marx’s internal relations and the method of abstraction. In her analysis, the political and economic spheres are taken to be both embedded (ontologically), while appearing to be separated within the subjectivities of class actors (abstraction of vantage point). The state plays a core ‘managerial’ role in this affair, operating as a ‘the complex of institutions by means of which the power of the society is organised on a basis superior to kinship’. This means the political state can appear ‘neutral’ while having the capacity to resolve disputes that emerge in capitalist production. This developed relationship between the state and production which, argues Wood, is unique to capitalism, allows the class relations of capitalism to function without the appearance of extra-economic coercion. In the context of the development of productive relations, this also allows Wood to analyse the origins of capitalist production through the development of the political and economic relations in Feudalism. Wood’s contribution retains both a consistent treatment of internal relations as well as an explanatory scope for looking towards capitalism’s origins and historic specificity.

Sebastian Rioux argues that Wood has not totally escaped the violence of abstraction by relying on a restricted Eurocentric methodology. According to Rioux, consistency in Marx’s method requires us to see theory as history. This means that both history and theory should be engaged dialectically to produce a historical materialist analysis. Given this concern, Rioux is critical of Political Marxism’s prioritisation of methodology over history in its assessment of historical development. Rioux therefore argues that Wood’s analysis becomes less successful in explaining relations of exploitation at the levels of the world-system. Rioux suggests looking at the relations of production and exploitation in leading towards a more comprehensive method of historical materialism. To substantiate this claim, he returns to Jairus Banaji’s dialectical analysis of the relations of production and the social aspect of exploitation that can co-exist within capitalist production. This approach is more sophisticated, he continues, in accounting for the rise of slavery in the Americas as a constituent part of wage labour exploitation. This example of is also consistent with Marx’s own analysis: “the veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe need the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal”. Given this argument, I would suggest that Wood’s analysis would be more convincing if it were limited to the specific European context of capitalist development. Rioux takes us a long way in appreciating the violent abstraction specific to Wood’s method, but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Although there are evidently tensions between the philosophy of internal relations and explanations of capitalist transition, Wood’s account of capitalist transition proves resilient in offering a convincing analysis of capitalism and it’s origins.

Historical materialism stresses the centrality of internal relations in ontological reality. It also suggests that abstraction is an important method extending our understanding of the world as it is. It has been discussed that a significant roadblock to this project is knowing precisely when abstraction is appropriate and when it commits a violent abstraction. Eurocentricism and restrictive methodological approaches have shown to be insufficient in dealing with this concern, although they may form the foundations for more complex dialectical analysis. Nonetheless, the philosophy of internal relations is uniquely equipped in overcoming the shortcoming of other philosophical positions by offering an explanation of the materiality of the content of form. Treating theory as history will get us closer to understanding the complexities of extra-economic coercion, uneven and combined aspects of development, and the dialectical relations of the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ within the social relations of capitalism.

Historical materialism must unify ontological, epistemological and methodological considerations to overpower the violence of abstraction.

Llewellyn Williams-Brooks
Llewellyn Williams-Brooks is PhD Student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His current research interests are Australian Historiography, Class and State theory, Economic Policy and Labour History.

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