determination

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Tue Mar 14 20:43:53 MST 1995


I am glad that there is interest in pursuing the discussion of
determination. I just want to pursue a couple of points. I am in general
agreement with Fellini's post, including the great similarity between
Bhaskar and Giddens on many of these issues (though my knowledge of Giddens
is cursory). Both he and Mostern, however, use a term that I continue to
find problematic, namely that of "totality", especially when it is used with
regards to social causation.

In many cases (though I do not want to suggest that either Fellini or
Mostern necessarily wants to defend such a conception) totality becomes a
convenient category into which we deposit otherwise unspecified causal
influences. What I have trouble conceptualizing is how and where this
totalization takes place. How does the notion of determination that Williams
defends in the citations Mostern provided actually work? Williams says that
"determination of this whole kind--a complex and interrelated process of
limits and pressures--is in the whole social process itself and nowhere
else". I wonder if this is similar to what Henri Lefebvre calls
"totalisation as process":

"The Whole, the Total, is not a generalised "individual" identified with an
institution, a state or an apparatus. Such notions contain neither a global
conception nor a definition of the goal. They indicate no direction. The
total, which henceforth has nothing totalitarian about it, can only be
determined as process, with a direction: the reconstruction of society as
society, on its new industrial and urban base." (_The Survival of
Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production_,
London: Alison and Busby, 1976, p. 127.)

I am inclined to take the idea that totalisation has to be understood as a
never-ending process seriously. I think that it accords with an
understanding of society as a fundamentally open process (Bhaskar, again;
sorry, Ralph).

Another point that I think it is important to stress is that social
structures of all kinds simultaneously enable as well as constrain. This is
part of what I think tends to get lost when we think in terms of the
"determination" of consciousness by social being. If we are enabled by
particular circumstances to do something it simply means that there are
possibilities for action available, with nothing compelling us to go in any
given direction. Capitalism constrains workers by forcing them to sell their
labour power. At the same time it has tended to concentrate workers in a
single location which has enabled working class solidarity. Whether or not
workers become aware of the potential power that this grants them, and
whether they learn how to exercise it to their advantage is an open question
(and whether this will ever lead to socialism is an equally open matter).

I agree with Fellini that we cannot interpret the determinations in one
direction only, but I think that we have to be prepared for the consequences
of accepting that position. It means that consciousness can determine being.
Not in the sense that we can invent any identity that we want for ourselves,
but in the sense that consciousness of our capacities is essential to their
exercise, both for individuals and for collectivities. And it is through our
activity in the world that we create ourselves.

Thus when Fellini quotes Marx as saying that "Consciousness is, therefore,
from the very beginning, a social product, and remains so long as men exists
at all", it seems to me that we have to supplement that with the idea that
society, to the extent that it is the product of living human activity, is
also the product of consciousness. How else can we understand any project of
social transformation that requires our (self)conscious activity, including
Marxism?

Howie Chodos



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