Editors' Introduction

Volume 25   Issue 3  July 2013

The good people
Invite one to improve them, for
How does anyone get wiser? By listening
And by being told something.
At the same time, however
They improve anybody who looks at them and anybody
They look at. It is not just because they help one
To get jobs or to see clearly, but because
We know that these people are alive and are
Changing the world, that they are of use to us.
—Bertolt Brecht, excerpt from “The Good People”1

As we wrote in the last issue's memorial announcement, Stephen Resnick, who, among his many achievements and legacies, was one of the founders of this journal, passed away in January of 2013. We now publish with bittersweet pride one of the pieces he worked on with Richard Wolff during the last year of his life, “On Overdetermination and Althusser: Our Response to Silverman and Park,” as part of our symposium on overdetermination edited by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry.

Overdetermination is one of the concepts central to the powerful and novel theorization produced by Resnick and Wolff: the idea of class as a process. They were not alone in the attempt to fill out the other conditions or signifiers attendant to class; Marx himself describes class in both conjunctural analyses of historical events (Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850) and in theoretical terms (vols. 1–3 of Capital). In The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson wrote that class is not “a ‘structure’ or even a ‘category,’ but something which happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships,” urging us away from class as a thing, towards a form of consciousness that had to be constructed rather than found.2 “Class is not a noun, but an adjective,” as Resnick liked to put it. While Resnick and Wolff were not the first to describe class as something in flux, their unique contribution was to theorize class as an ever-changing flow of value, where surplus value is produced, appropriated, and distributed to secure an overall class process characterized by capitalism, feudalism, slavery, communism, and so on. Touching on intense debates in Marxism over modes of production, the relation of the material to culture and politics, and even the class characterization of the Soviet Union, they were part of a generation of Marxists that sought to push the tradition to grow and expand, but also to confront its determinist demons. They insisted that deploying class theory did not actually distinguish class as more important than any other framework, nor did it elevate it to the status of the core aspect of social life. This last assertion was one of their most troubling, even for their own Marxist comrades, who could not accept the fundamental contingency attached to the concept of an “entry point.” Some accused Resnick and Wolff of relativism, a funny charge for two lifelong Marxists who tirelessly and enthusiastically taught thousands of undergraduate and graduate students about the injustice of exploitation. In the piece here, they address that charge in a straightforward manner, describing why they developed an ontological theory eschewing simple “cause and effect” for the “mess” of mutual constitution and determination.

In the introduction to the symposium, “Revisiting Resnick and Wolff's Reading of Overdetermination,” Ian J. Seda-Irizarry performs a genealogy of overdetermination in the work of Resnick and Wolff, guiding us through the different authors that were important in their intellectual trajectory: Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, Richard Rorty, William Quine, and Louis Althusser. Wonderfully incorporating personal communications and correspondence, Seda-Irizarry excavates the construction phase of one of Resnick and Wolff's most enduring conceptual legacies, taking us from Wolff's meeting with Althusser, to his excited telegram to Resnick, and on to Resnick's recollection of what questions led them to which readings in philosophy. We are grateful to our editorial member Seda-Irizarry for having nurtured this symposium and seeing it to publication.

In “‘Overdetermined’ or ‘Indeterminate’? Remarks on Knowledge and Class,” Mark S. Silverman raises an issue that many RM authors have tackled surrounding the methodology appropriate to an ontology organized by the logic of overdetermination. In his essay, Silverman argues that the work of Resnick and Wolff circles around overdetermination as indeterminacy by arguing that no methodology can accurately reflect the messy, chaotic multiplicity of factors that both determine and are determined by one another. The focus on indeterminacy led to a swerve away from predictive modeling, amongst other methods, when it need not do so in Silverman's opinion. For their part, Resnick and Wolff respond here and elsewhere that overdetermination is not merely multidetermination, as though the multiplicity of determining factors could be captured by a diligent accountant. Any narrative organized by quantitative or qualitative method can only capture a partial subset; this narrative can in turn produce effects (mobilizing groups, scholarship, and political movements) but it has nonetheless arrested a complex totality and focused on a subset of that totality.

Hyun Woong Park argues that Resnick and Wolff have mischaracterized Althusser's work as having ambivalences and contradictions. In “Overdetermination: Althusser versus Resnick and Wolff,” Park argues that Althusser was “consistent” in his life's work when insisting on “economic determination in the last instance,” even as he elaborated the role of ideology and different ideological apparatuses. To read Althusser as mostly nondeterminist is to mistake his understanding of overdetermination as having no distinction between principal or secondary contradictions, which depend on the articulation of the social field. Here, Park is echoing the school of thought especially associated with post-Marxism, which does not theorize the social field as composed of elements of even and equal constitution. Instead, overdetermination works through condensation (and displacement), indicating an uneven social field with some signifiers acting as nodal points in language that have particular power precisely as empty signifiers.

In their response, Resnick and Wolff are consistent with the position they have taken elsewhere in articles written specifically on overdetermination in the New Left Review, Monthly Review, Antipode, Review of Radical Political Economy, and of course in Rethinking Marxism. But there is a different tone to this piece (including a teaching exemplar of overdetermination, a messy diagram) as it is written with a generosity of spirit towards students who are critical and questioning (the symposium's participants are recent or current graduate students). Their response also affirms their commitment to a “Marxism without guarantees,” in that class analysis does not offer the truth of the situation either in describing the economy as that which determines the social totality in the last instance or in generating a methodology that can predict social phenomena more accurately than non-Marxist theories. They trouble us by insisting there can be no shortcut to confronting the “messiness” of reality, as they put it, at the same time that they also affirm the (potential) effectivity of a class-based theory or narrative. Taking and developing their central idea of class as process, scores of their students have produced a considerable body of scholarship under the rubric of the Association for Economic and Social Analysis, while yet other scholars went on to define their agenda against the work of Resnick and Wolff; but in the end, it was all marked (overdetermined, if you will) in a profound way by them.

Separate from the symposium, Ellen Flournoy's article “No, It's Not a Joke: The Christian Right's Appropriation of Feminism” nonetheless picks up on a thread from our symposium on overdetermination. She describes how a body of theories takes root within the social formation, with a self-feeding loop then ensuing. Flournoy examines the discourse of popular conservative feminists such as Sarah Palin, or groups such as the Concerned Women for America, to see how antifeminist positions can be taken up under the guise of feminism. She argues that postmodern theories of feminism have been adopted in a selective manner by Christian women who have used collective lobbying power to help prevent the United States from being the only industrialized nation to refuse ratification of the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination. A new type of Christian feminist ideology and theoretical framework is exerting real social transformations that will, in turn, reverberate on the range of feminist theories.

In “Late Agonies of Liberty in Common,” Alexandros Kioupkiolis investigates some of the most contentious issues for those interested in radical democracy. In Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's project (although here Kioupkiolis refers exclusively to Mouffe's work), radical democratic process is distinguished from simple democratic process by the struggle against hegemonic domination/violence and commitment to ampler liberty, realizing that the process's exclusions must not be glossed over but brought in even if through antagonism. Highlighting the contingency of political articulation, the process calls for testing and expanding its own boundaries continually. However, Kioupkiolis argues that the “agony” of difference is resolved a little too neatly in Mouffe's work and that she has arbitrarily renounced an anticapitalist politics, which contradicts her vision of radical democracy as challenging injustice and inequity. While William Connolly fares better on the issue of agonistic freedom and pluralization by anticipating imperfect justice rather than assuming steady openness and inclusion in political articulation, he too has a blind spot. For Kioupkiolis, emancipatory pluralism is advocated for, but the capitalist enterprise escapes notice, in Connolly's work.

In “Primitive Digital Accumulation: Privacy, Social Networks, and Biopolitical Exploitation,” Brian A. Brown takes up an interesting question for Marxists. Marx describes primitive accumulation in gory and moving terms in Capital, as he explains the social construction of land and labor as commodities. That construction of a commodity was, and always is, rife with double-movements, resistance, and coercion, leading us to ask: how is that enclosure process working today in the knowledge commons? How is something that has not been articulated clearly as a commodity turned into a commodity, and by what judicial and discursive means? Brown examines the photo-sharing website Flickr and uses interviews with members to argue that members are not just resisting the invasion of their privacy (as posited by popular news coverage) but that they are resisting primitive accumulation and the commodification of that which they are willing to share freely.

For our Globalization under Interrogation series, Efthimia Panagiotidis writes of the Hamburg squatter movement and collective Lux and Konsorten in “Passionate Undertakings: New Collectives, Indeterminate Spaces of Mobility, and the Politics of Affect.” Asserting a collective right to the city in the face of ever-increasing rents and real estate speculation, the group contests in particular the displacement of small shop owners. Instead of a segregated urban space, group members express the desire for a mixed neighborhood where they can afford to work, live, and participate in an urban commons. In essence, the group demands that a diverse economy be planned in order to support diverse cities and neighborhoods.

In our Art section, Alicia Herrero also circles around the assertion of collective rights to the commons in “Public Considerations: A Symposium in Three Acts, 2010–2011.” She stages three performative talks—at Buenos Aires University, the Argentine National Bank at the Plaza de Mayo, and the auditorium of the National Congress—and interrogates how the notion of the “public” is both created and delimited sharply in each context. The university, the bank, and parliament each have a particular physical structure that affects the routine ways of distinguishing participant from observer, and the speaker from the silent. In each location, Herrero assembles an audience (some of whom enter these spaces for the first time) and uses multiple techniques to stage a debate on debate, the commons, and the public, interrupting how these are constructed and, most important, how they might be reconstructed.

We have a Remarx essay by Benedito Rodrigues de Moraes-Neto: “On the Labor Process and Productive Efficiency: Discussing the Socialist Project,” translated by Beatrice Allain. Moraes-Neto continues a theme he has pursued in other pieces in Rethinking Marxism, that deskilling and Taylorism are not inevitable or structurally necessary for a system of mass manufacturing. Positing such a necessary linkage trapped generations of socialists (particularly within the Soviet Union) into accepting alienation as the cost of productive efficiency, the inevitability of which is contested by the author through social construction.

And last, in our Review section, Catherine P. Mulder reviews Costas Panayotakis's book Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy. In this book Panayotakis examines scarcity as the organizing narrative of neoclassical economics, taking us from the theoretical foundations to the deployment of this narrative in austerity plans around the world. He instead offers economic democracy as a different principle to organize both macrostate policies and worker self-managed firms and sites. His book fits into a wider turn that includes works such as Richard Wolff's Economic Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Gar Alperovitz's America beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, and Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini's Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present.

The Editors

Notes

  1. Bertolt Brecht, “Song About the Good People,” in Poems: 1913–1956, ed. J. Willett and R. Manheim (New York: Methuen, 1976), 337–39. After Stephen Resnick's death, Jack Amariglio sent this poem in his memory to the listserv of the Association for Economic and Social Analysis.
  2. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Class (London: Random House, 1966), 9.
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