determination

Kenny Mostern kennym at uclink2.berkeley.edu
Wed Mar 15 10:50:44 MST 1995


Thank you to people for responding to my determination post.  Here are a
few inadequate replies, perhaps one day to be more adequate:

To Chodos and others,
There is a huge tendency, and CLR James is a large part of it these days,
to want to simply turn around "social being determines consciousness" and
make it "and also consciousness determines social being".  I have been
part of this tendency.  However, I hope it is clear that Williams'
formulations do not, actually, do this, and I'm starting to think that it
is facile to do this in general.  The point of recognizing the objective
as a starting point outside of consciousness is recognizing that the
space left for consciousness to work is, relatively speaking, small and
constrained.  Consciousness therefore can adjust one's reactions to
social being--i.e. do you fight back or do you maintain the status
quo--but it cannot, without the substantial change in material variables,
change social being.  One remains black, or a factory worker, or a
woman.  (And if one doesn't, it is not because one's "consciousness"
changes.)  The importance of the Bourdieuian formulation I cited is to
say "free will" is always, and only, the free will to act in one's
context.  Contexts change, but not through the actions of individuals as
individuals.  The challenge of revolutionary strategy, is, of course, to
see whether the actions of the individuals we are can be made to be
collective, "class" actions (with class understood, in my writing, more
broadly than "working class").

Totality:  I am influenced by Jameson's definition of totality as the
mode of production, a definition which I believe must draw from world
systems theory, though he does not note this.  We need the concept of
totality not because it is apprehendable--clearly it is not--but because
without it there is no way to be systematic about our thinking.  That is,
unless we imagine that there really is a world trade network which unites
all of us in global capitalism, there is no way to attempt (at whatever
level) to understand why the actions of first world professionals (as I
always, I speak of myself) might actually be oppressing people throughout
the world who I will never see or meet.  Totality is the only plausible
excuse for saying, we want to change the system rather than simply be
ethical people wherever we are--which is the explicit position of the big
names in poststructuralism, including Foucault and Derrida to name just
two.  (In fact, we generally end up doing no
more than the latter, and sometimes less than the latter, because, citing
my last paragraph, we have not on the whole figured out how to act as a
class rather than as individuals.)

Now, it remains necessary for us to try to define this totality,
something which is never entirely accomplished.  It has become clear to
me that there are objective sociological and possibly psychological
conditions which contribute to the mode of production in the same sense
that capitalism does.  If this is true, the equation totality = mode of
production does *not* mean totality = capitalism, as traditional marxism
(and Jameson himself)
would have it.  Rather it means something more nearly like totality =
white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks, one of the most
interesting writers around, puts it.  (Her politics are something like
the closest nonmarxist equivalent to mine:  cf. *Black Looks*, her best
book.)

Note again that saying that "white supremacy" and "patriarchy" are part
of the productive system would not mean that "consciousness" determines
social being, since people are socially determined to be a race and a
gender quite apart from consciousness.  The rejoinder that people fight
against the social system that insists on their race and gender positions
is neither more nor less true than it is for class; in any event
understanding this fight does require a notion of objective social
location which is relatively stable and nonarbitrary, contra Laclau and
Mouffe.

Finally, regarding social structure enabling action:  absolutely true.
No activity is possible outside the enabling structure.  This statement
is the flip side of the limitations the structure provides.  (I am
limited by my position in the academy.  It is also the only source I have
for the time and money it takes to do this kind of theorizing.  What is
important to analyze is how that limits my usefulness as a
revolutionary, and what circumstances it would take for me to get out of
the academy and be limited less.)  The point is that "enablement" is both
real, and always within limits.  And keep in mind, before we recite that
old marxist notion that the factory system enables the working class to
come together, that decentralization is capitalism's response to that
fact.  Fragmentation of the international working class is much more
nearly the case.

Finally, to Rakesh:

No, I don't believe that capitalism is directional, which is why, in the
mode of the Frankfurt philosophers, I tend to be pessimistic.  There is
too much evidence of reproduction being effective.  What it means to
actively fight for a marxist overturning is to understand that socialism
is, materially *possible*.  But possible is not necessary, nor even
likely.  Gayatri Spivak, who I continue to have a love/hate
relationship with, makes this point pretty well in her essay in
*Whither Marxism?*  Finally (and for those of you who don't realize this,
Rakesh and I have sparred on and off for years on this stuff--we're in the same
graduate program) if I choose to do anti-racist work on the ground it is
because I don't believe the socialist revolution is happening in my
lifetime and I think that, in the U.S. context, the most plausible space
to begin its overturning is an attack on the racial system.  The most
convincing class analyses of the U.S., from Du Bois to Robert Allen, have
always begun from this premise.

Kenny Mostern
UC-Berkeley Ethnic Studies Graduate Group

Against:  racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism
For:  the truth--and the funk!



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