‘Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Volume I: The Social Determination of Method’ reviewed by A F Pomeroy

Reviewed by A F Pomeroy

About the reviewer

Anne F. Pomeroy is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Richard Stockton College, Galloway, NJ. She …

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The first volume of István Mészáros’s Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, is a classic work of ideology critique and socialist vision. Its twofold aim involves a critical project of demystification that analyses the dominant forms of consciousness that developed within and have ideologically supported the social structures of capitalism, and a project of reconstruction that elaborates the methodological contours of a qualitatively different, non-antagonistic hegemonic alternative to the capitalist form of social relations. Mészáros seeks to demonstrate that nothing short of a radical overturning of the capitalist social form will put an end to the antagonisms and structural contradictions whose trajectory of development has resulted in a completely unsustainable form of being manifest in destructive practices of production and consumption, militaristic enforcement of its imperatives, environmental devastation – capitalism is, he maintains, in its “descending phase”. This form of being is, however, sustained by the forms of consciousness about it that are generated within it. “[T]he representative figures of capital’s social horizon must conceptualize everything in a determinate way.” (12) Therefore, the theoretical articulation of the forms of consciousness consistent with this alternative is a necessary stage in its positive realization, serves to undermine assumptions regarding the eternality of the capitalist system (maintained by the dominant ideologies of political economy), and constitute the first act of self-realization necessary for the institution of the radically different form of social metabolic order.

Mészáros outlines seven mutually supporting and interlocking features of the ideological methodologies of the capitalist epoch: scientism, formalism, individualism, negative determinations, inadequate articulation of historical temporality, dichotomous thinking, and empty universalism, and traces these through the works of the “major players” in philosophical, social, and political-economic theory. Mészáros stays close to Marx in this critical work, his primary targets being Hegel, Smith, Kant, and Rousseau (among a small peripheral host of others) and exposes the similarities in their methodological approaches and the manner in which these serve to ideologically support the social system of capital. The primary methodological approaches that their views share in whole or in part are presented by Mészáros roughly as follows:

  • They present a view that technical, scientific, “rational” approaches will provide solutions to social problems. This faith in the illusion of social amelioration assumes the permanency of the underlying capitalist form of social relations which only needs to be technically managed and balanced in order to function properly.
  • Values are presented as abstract and ideal, moral discourse is formalized. Issues are examined in their quantified form. This avoids real value-oriented discussions and presents them as irrational, emotive, generated by and infected by individual interests – rationality is taken to be synonymous with value-neutrality. The formalist approach thus avoids looking at substantive inequality or asking after qualitative, value-laden features of the social reality.
  • Conflict is taken to be a result of the competing interests of self-serving individuals (a result of their human nature). Such conflicts are to be worked out by the State, reconciled in the Notion. The rational human community is pushed off into the empty “ought”, forever underway, never fully achieved.
  • Historical movement is driven by negation which permanently retains the orientation towards what is negated. In this, no vision of positive enactment of real alternatives is entertained.
  • Historical agency , whether Vico’s “supra-individual” or Smith’s “Invisible Hand” or Hegel’s “Cunning of Reason”, is given over to an abstraction. The trajectory of history will proceed according to its rational development. The nature of what is “right” is permanently present and cyclically renewed – subjects need only reconcile themselves to it. Neither the real genesis nor the possible end of the social form can be entertained within this framework. Real human subjects are thereby disempowered.
  • An abstract philosophical subject/object dualism plays itself out primarily in the arena of epistemology. The subject is inward-oriented and egotistic, needing to obtain to the impossible objectivity of the “external” realm – human attainment is driven by an empty ought and this hides from view the real dichotomies historically created with the founding of the capitalist system, primary among these, the separation of labor (the subject) from the means of production (the objective conditions of its realization).
  • Antagonistic individualism is methodologically overcome through abstract and purely formal unification provided by organic or anthropological models or, as is the case with Hegel, over time through the self-realization of Reason. The unity is automatic but does not involve the individuals subsumed within it.

According to Mészáros these methodological tendencies, repeated in a variety of forms, occur because the thinkers who produce them accept without critical examination the social form within which they operate and thereby necessarily reflect its imperatives: supporting the eternalization of its structures by hiding its historical origins and stripping its real participants of their historical agency, serving as theoretical apologetics for its most destructive developments which are blamed on the egotism of individuals and will be overcome through the application and perfection of capitalist rationality.

Those who are already well-versed in philosophical Marxism, who are well acquainted with Marx’s critiques of Hegel and with his critiques of the “political economists”, will not find anything particularly new in these first seven chapters. However, it may prove helpful to see all these observations brought together in one complete analysis as it affords the reader the opportunity to fully consider the interconnections between these methodological tendencies and perhaps even to consider the manner in which contemporary philosophical/social-critical work (his own and that of others) serves either as a continuation of such shameless apologetics or to articulate alternate visions.

Given the importance Mészáros attaches to the positive vision, it may seem ironic to fault him for his negativity, but his analysis of the ideological philosophical positions focuses exclusively on the dominant players in philosophical and social theory and, whereas we should not be surprised that those whose positions are valorized within the capitalist society are those who produce its “ruling ideas”, there is always theory occurring “at the margins”. The reader here may find him or herself longing for at least some mention of the theoretical visions that do indeed serve as genuinely or even potentially critical of capitalist social formations – select representatives in the feminist, postmodern, critical-modern, or even American traditions. Perhaps a greater examination of these will occur in the next volume of this work.

The final chapter of the book, “Method in a Historical Epoch of Transition” is more original and refreshing. Mészáros is adamant and uncompromising in his insistence that capitalism is in its descending phase, witnessed by increased military and political intervention to secure its ends, by the unsustainable and contradictory combination of excessive production, human degradation and starvation, unsurpassed waste and destruction, by the increasingly serious results of environmental devastation, by the reduction of the values of liberty, fraternity, democracy, and equality to cynical falsifications justifying military and imperial interventions. The system is coming apart at the seams.

 In keeping with the Marxist humanist tradition, Mészáros retrieves the fundamental methodological principles of Marx’s Manuscripts and The German Ideology: that human creative production in the world involves a metabolic exchange between human beings and the natural world, and that the individuals so involved are always already social individuals. The capitalist system, he maintains, replaces these “first order” mediations with its own antagonistic and destructive “second order” mediations and produces the ideology supporting the view that these “second order” mediations: the separation of the means of production from labor, the reification of exchange value and the commodity form, etc., are the natural, permanent metabolic forms. Objectification is equated to alienation but demystification is meant to reveal the lie of this equation. As Marx has shown, appropriation and privatization of the means of production involved numerous violent historical acts and, therefore, the forms generated in its development are neither eternal nor “natural”. Having emerged from conscious human agency, Mészáros claims it will only be undone by similar agency. What is required, in addition to demystification, is the articulation of what is necessary for there to be a hegemonic alternative to capitalism.

According to Mészáros such an alternative must be consciously chosen, continually self-critical yet communal – overcoming adversariality, yet seriously engaging the views and options presented by the Other — and that this communal engagement results in the planning and continual revision of the social metabolic processes that constitute meaningful life activity (352). The articulation of the hegemonic alternative thus involves overturning each of the methodological tendencies outlined in the first seven chapters through the restoration of the fully social human subject who is consciously in control of science and technology, productive of substantive and not formal solutions, engaged in the world as a social individual, positively constructive of the social world, conscious of existing as the historical agency, reunited with the objective means of his or her social production, continually involved in the process of creating the totality and unity of the social (human and natural) whole.

Most unfortunately and somewhat disappointingly, Mészáros tells us what needs to happen but does not really tell us how. We are left to wonder what role the theorist has to play in bringing about the self-consciousness that appears to be the necessary pre-requisite to the engagement of such transformative agency. Are works like his own enough? If thinkers become sane about what constitutes ideological claptrap will they cease producing it, will they call one another on it, will they see their own contributions to it? This is again why it might have been important for Mészáros to speak to and of and with “theory at the margins” — to give us an idea of where we can find those whose views can aid in the, dare I say, social production of mutually-enhancing theoretical visions supporting the construction of the radical alternative(s) to capitalism. It is entirely possible that we need to learn to do theory differently. At the same time, recent events may serve as proof that such consciousness indeed will arise among the people precisely as a result of systemic contradictions, in which case it may be enough for the theorist to help us see our past for what it is and our future for what it will be.

Additionally, this is not a book for the faint-hearted; it could have benefitted from a rather more generous editorial hand. Ironically, for its length, it often avoids or sidesteps areas of well-know conflict in Marxian theory and is somewhat thin on details, wherein, as we know all too well, the devil resides. Yet it is aggressively faithful to Marx and may indeed be called a radical work, in the sense of bringing us back to the Marxian roots: ideology critique, the natural-human metabolism which serves as the foundation of Marx’s critique of capitalism and the source of the vision of its non-antagonistic, non-hierarchical alternative, the necessity of self-consciousness and self-appropriation. Unfortunately, for those who have not strayed far from these roots in the first place, the book may seem to simply rework territory already turned by Marxists who have long been involved in theorizing social ontology, alienation, dialectics, etc., but as we know all too well, we are often in need of reminders regarding what is essential in our critical views and in our projective visions. Mészáros’s is a clear and unequivocal call for social and philosophical sanity, maintaining that the theoretical articulation of and the substantive practical construction of the alternative to capitalism must be hegemonic. Piecemeal solutions (including a socialist market) will leave its fundamental structures intact. The extreme decline of the system that threatens the human-natural metabolism with utter destruction can bear no other solution.

28 February 2011

2 comments

  1. The reviewer tells us that Mészáros evokes
    “the restoration of the fully social human subject who is consciously in control of science and technology, …” etc.

    Is “the fully social human subject who is consciously in control…” at all adequate to and appropriate for human being? Isn’t the human being as subject precisely the problem? And the striving for control of the object the historical disaster?

    The reviewer laments merely that “most unfortunately and somewhat disappointingly, Mészáros [..] does not really tell us how” this restoration is to proceed.

  2. István Mészáros dealt with the subject of an irreversible radical restructuring of social relations and the immense need of going beyond the parameters of capital in all its forms in his Magnum Opus – Beyond Capital published in 1995. This book is dedicated, evidently, to the critique of the methodology of those who are trapped within the confines of capital and its contradictions. Therefore, Mészáros need not elaborate on what he already has in a previous book approximately a 1000 pages long. It is my personal opinion that to implicitly blame the author for this seems unfair.

    In fact, Social Structures and Forms Consciousness should be seen as a work building on a specific area (theory and method) of the spectacular philosophical edifice laid down by the author in Beyond Capital. If any reader wants to learn more about Mészáros’s conception of social change they should refer to his newer and much shorter work “Historical Actuality Of The Socialist Offensive: Alternatives to Parliamentarism” which in all probability further develops on one of the chapters of Beyond Capital titled the “Historical Actuality Of The Socialist Offensive”.

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