[Marxism] Mode of production

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Sun Aug 27 14:02:10 MDT 2006

> On 8/21/06, Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> wrote:
> >
> > Sorry, this line of reasoning is utterly unfamiliar to me. For me,
> > everything flows from the mode of production.
> Louis,
> Looking up the archives, I see that on Oct 22, 1999, you wrote
> (while speaking of Althusser):
> "I hate economic determinism masquerading as Marxism. It makes me
> want to scream.
> "Economic determinism basically is a belief that social movements
> and beliefs are reflections of underlying economic structures."
> I am having difficulty reconciling this statement from 1999 with
> your statement above (from Aug 21).

I was waiting for someone to pick up on this point. Since no one has
done that, I'd like to keep the issue alive by offering a comment of
my own here, in which I try to link together the notion of determinism
and modes of production.

The word "determinism" is often (but not necessarily) taken to imply
unequivocal or mechanical determinism. What does mechanical
determinism mean?  Conventionally it means that the outcome of a
process is in principle entirely predictable from a knowledge of its
initial state.

The term "in principle" is inserted here because our knowledge of an
initial state can never be complete, and so we must employ a
probabilistic vocabulary. For example, in a university physics lab,
the student makes use of standard deviation because he can never
perfectly control or know the initial state of his
experiment. Repeating his experiment over and over never yields quite
the same outcome. However, this does not disprove the general law he
seeks to validate, but merely says that since our knowledge is a bit
inaccurate, the outcomes may be a bit off and still lend support to
the general law.

However, perhaps a process might in fact be objectively probabilistic
rather than probabilism being an effect of our ignorance. The classic
discussion of this was in terms of the "n-body problem". Since it
remains in contention, we can't use it to infer any conclusion
regarding objective probability. Much better known is the situation in
quantum mechanics, where an entity is represented as a probability
distribution of possible states (Eigenstates) after a measurement. The
problem here is that what is true of a micro domain, might not be true
of a macro domain such as human history.

However, a third argument for an objective probabilistic determinism
seems more convincing. When the entities that interact are processes,
the outcome will be a distribution of possible outcomes having
differing probabilities. The initial state of a process can't be
empirically defined (there is no empirically definable "initial
state") and therefore the outcome can't be certainly predicted.

Assuming this third argument carries weight, it turns out that the
difference between mechanical and probabilistic determinism hinges on
whether the system under study is open or closed (or isolated). A
system that is closed acts only in response to internal forces. We
know that any closed system must experience increased entropy, which
in turn means that its outcome is unequivocally predictable (except as
results from our ignorance). On the other hand, an open system we know
is necessarily being determined by other processes (and ultimately the
cosmic increase in entropy), and is therefore necessarily itself a
process (Friedrich Engels: everything is in motion).

So, any entity viewed naturally (viewing its relation with its
environment as necessary rather than accidental) must be viewed as a
process. This is in contrast to the closed laboratory in which
predictive laws are in part an artifact of the human intervention to
close or isolate the experiment. While a law that is revealed through
closure does tell us something true about the system if it is
artificially isolated (that is, we adopt an atomistic view of things),
this truth is a one-sided or limited truth in relation to the
realistic truth of the system when open to the world.

The atomism associated with the Enlightenment and the positivist
laboratory model a century later therefore express the same feature of
capitalist ideology. Both are reductionist and therefore static. Its
truth in part results from a reduction needed to suit its ideological

Having arrived at this conclusion, what can be said of the initial
question? It implies that the phrase "economic determinism" can be
understood in one of two ways: in terms of a mechanical causality and
of a probabilistic causality.

A mechanical determinism seems to imply two different possible claims,
which I'll characterize as a weak one and a strong one. But before
looking at them, I must turn to a side issue. If we think of "the
economy" as determining something, it implies we view the "economy" as
something more than just a mental construct - a somewhat arbitrary
category of things based on some common features that call "essential"
based on our experience of daily life. Our concepts can't determine
anything but other concepts. Any knowledge of a causation that lays a
claim to truth in relation to the world must assume that the entities
involved are in some way objectively real. This seems to imply that
they are systems that as a whole have distinguishing emergent
properties or behaviors.

An example of a statement of a weak mechanical economic determinism
might be: To the extent our knowledge of the economy is complete and
accurate, we are able to predict its effect on other aspects of the
social whole.

However, such a "mechanical" economic determinism is a fiction, for it
involves the causal relation of quite different things, one of which
is economic and the other not. Obviously, social effects don't reduce
to features characteristic of an economy; there is no common
denominator. A mechanistic causal explanation is not really
"mechanistic" at all, for it does not invoke any inner causal
mechanism to account for change. Causality is in fact only inferred
from a constant conjuncture or proximity of events, which are
therefore labelled cause and effect. Without exposing the inner
mechanism of change, any force of necessity is lost, and with it any

A strong statement of mechanical economic determinism might be: To the
extent our knowledge of the economy is complete and accurate, we are
able to predict the outcome of the process of the social
whole. However, again the outcome of the whole is obviously
empirically different from just its economic dimension, and therefore
there can be no mechanical determination. To suggest that Marxism
embraces a mechanical economic determinism is to burden it with an
illogical position.

However, these difficulties disappear once we realize that Marxism
instead uses a probabilistic economic determinism. It might be
expressed in this fashion: The economy constrains the probability
distribution of the possible outcomes of the system as a whole. The
necessity here is not that an initial state necessitates the outcome,
but that the outcome implies the limits and potentials present in an
initial state (Marxism's method is not deductive, but
abductive). However, this initial state is not empirically, but
structurally, defined (as a mode of production as we will see). 

This, I believe, is what is at the core of Marxism. Change, as in the
case of economic determinism, becomes scientific because it embraces a
causality that is both probabilistic and necessary.  Because processes
are defined by their causal relation (such as "class" being defined as
a relation of production) rather than their empirical state, the
effect of one process on another is to alter the probability
distribution of its possible outcomes. This provides an inner
mechanism of change that (to a degree) is independent of its empirical
specifics. The causal inner mechanism cannot be observed, but is
treated as real (hence Marxism is an example of "scientific
realism"). It is a description of a structure that makes development

A description of this inner mechanism through which the economy
constrains the probability distribution of the possible outcomes that
are implied by a given system structure is called a "mode of

Let me speak more specifically of modes of production, although that
is an enormous topic. What I say here is only meant to illustrate that
"mode of production" is not a "model" (an analog; a result of a
reduction), but a description of an inner mechanism of social

Human society, if seen as an open system, is one that stands in
relation to the natural environment (that is, society and nature are
considered parts of a larger system rather than nature being
external). Once we bring in the environment, we can then understand
human constructive activity in terms of a thermodynamic engine: the
forces of production constrain the dissipation of the natural
environment, which then of necessity gives rise to the improbable
structure of new "value". This value is an abstract unit of
development, a potential that is both social and economic in origin
and effect. The economy (the production of new value through the
constrained dissipation of the environment) makes development of any
kind possible, and the more developed the forces of production, the
more dramatic can that development be. The problem of the causal
relation of the economy and society is resolved by looking for the
inner mechanism of change, which can be viewed as a thermodynamic
engine that can reduce the entropy of a subsystem and therefore
increase its potentials for development.

The range of the kinds of possible system development depends on the
structure of the system. That it can develop at all depends on its
external relation with nature (the economy), but the possible
directions that it can develop depend on its internal structure,
particularly its social contradiction (class structure). As with our
relation with nature, the development of one class depends upon the
constrained dissipation of another: the development of a ruling class
depends on the constrained (by superstructure) dissipation of the
potentials created through labor. It is this development that also 
supports the development of the forces of production which had made
social development possible in the first place.

In itself this might imply a circular or "bootstrap" operation, but
that is certainly not the case in practice. The structure of the
social system determines which of its parts develop through the
dissipation of another, and this structure is maintained by empirical
structures (such as superstructure) that constrain the relation of its
parts. This defines the inner mechanism of development (mode of
production) which specifies the system parts and their manner of
development, with the ultimate source of development being the
potentials created by labor power (because that defines the boundary
of the system with the wider world and therefore its overall

It is the nature of contradictory relations that development reduces
the potentials that had made it possible in the first place (you can't
get something from nothing). As a system develops, its contradictions
"deepen" (what we speak of as the "aging" of the system), and aging
has the effect of narrowing the probability distribution of its
possible outcomes. As a result, development becomes "locked in" or
"one-sided". This means that the system looses its capacity for
qualitative development and is reduced to quantitative evolution. The
deepening contradiction locks the system in to a structure that cannot
adapt itself to developing forces of production, and the only way to
achieve that is through forcing a structural change by neutralizing
the structures (superstructure) that had maintained that
structure. That is, historical development takes place through an
alternation of evolution and revolution. 

Haines Brown 

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