[Marxism] dominant and other modes of production

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Dec 29 08:33:24 MST 2006

> My point here is about how to conceptualize the world system of
> capitalism in terms of modes of production. There are, of course,
> political consequences to be drawn from any conceptual analysis.

George, a very good question. There's an enormous literature on the
subject, but it strike me that there has never emerged from it any
consensus, and I'm persuaded that the whole subject is not well
understood. I can't offer any great insight, but I hope that others in
the group will be able to do so.

It seems to me that the notion, "mode of production" as employed by
Marx involved several features that have become well understood in the
sciences and widely employed by them, although that has not enabled
Marxist historians to use them to their advantage.

For example, it seems clear that Marx thought of modes of production
in what we would call "systemic" terms. The conventional understanding
of the approach means that that parts of a system interact in such a
way as to give rise to a whole, and the existence of the whole is
empirically manifest in the behavior or novel characteristics of its
parts. The problem with this empiricist approach, which works to some
extent (World Systems Theory, for example), is that unobservables
(such as the whole itself) are not treated as real objects. This means
that causal mechanisms are left out and we are therefore left without
any real explanations (this point is hotly debated, but is broadly
held in the philosophy of science). I suspect that in the history of
the discussion of modes of production, the idea of a "structural
causality" was introduced to correct this, but the effort does not
strike me as having been very successful.

This brings up a second feature of Marx's discussion of modes of
production, which is that it adopted a position we would today name
scientific realism. Again, this was not entirely novel at the time
Marx wrote (Bergson, James, Pierce), but explorations along this line
were quickly submerged by the growing hegemony of
positivism. Scientific realism, that unobservables are real, only
revived again toward the end of the 20th century.

Marx saw socio-economic systems as emergent, and therefore they must
also be contradictory. Today we would say that all social development
is driven by a thermodynamic engine, which explains why emergent
development (that is, development toward greater potentials) depends
on exporting entropy, which means dissipation of a social and
ultimately the natural environment.

Finally, Marx's approach was materialist. Merely saying this does not
say much, for while Marx obviously rejected various kinds of idealism,
he was beating a dead horse. Rising at the time was positivism, which
was materialist, and since then, almost all of us are materialists in
the sense of adopting an ontological monism. However, Marx was not a
materialist in only this sense. His materialism represented all things
as processes (what Engels described as a universal motion) rather than
things. This clearly distinguished him from the
positivists. Ontological monism did not just refer to identities
(things), but also the causal relation of identities. He always aimed
to explain emergence (such as surplus value), and to define things as
emergent processes, they have to be defined in terms of their causal
relations rather than their empirical identity. For example, "social
class" for him was a relation of people to the material source for
development - their relation of production, not any empirical
qualities which groups of people might happen to share. Modern
industrial workers have no relation to the material forces of
production (they don't own or control the means of production), but
they do bring to bear social forces of production, and their
development depends on them (social solidarity).

A mode of production therefore seems to be a representation of society
in terms of the causal relations, that are taken to be real and so
account for (that is, explain rather than just describe) its
development. This development rests ultimately on the dissipation of
the natural environment that we call economic production, and this is
true for all modes of production. However, the actual development that
does takes place depends on the mode of production, which constrains
the potentials represented by economic production.

My point here is that we probably get into trouble if we look at a
given society in strictly empirical terms and identify what we
perceive as archaic forms of production, such as slavery, latifundia,
or artisanry in combination with capitalism. Such forms certainly
exist, and they surely play a role. It is a mistake to break up into
economic domains that interact, for we need to look at the forces that
drive the development of society as a whole. Given that capitalism is,
generally speaking, far more productive than pre-capitalist modes of
production, capitalism would seem to characterize a society as a
whole, even if it contains archaic economic forms. It would therefore
be called a capitalist mode of production, even though it may contain
and to a degree depend on the presence of pre-capitalist forms of

Now George in particular brings up socialist societies. What are we to
do with them? There are no communist societies in the world today, but
an array of socialist societies that include capitalist elements
(market relations are not in themselves inherently capitalist)
maintained in an uneasy relation with more progressive trends such as
public ownership of the means of production. There is no "socialist
mode of production", and so what are we to do with these socialist
societies?  Off hand, it seems to me that we need to distinguish
whether the capitalist elements or the communist elements are the main
force for development. However, this does not reduce to which is the
more productive of wealth, but which is the basis for social
development. For example, if the state's social policies depend
primarily on income that derives from the capitalist sector, then I
suppose we still have a capitalist mode of production.

But I'm merely speculating here and hope that someone else will be
able to shed more light.

       Haines Brown, KB1GRM
   	 Dialectical Materialist        

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