Well, I’m wanting to move on to some non-Brandom-related material – but before I do here’s a promissory note for the Brandom write-up, in the form of a paper abstract. (This’ll probably end up as a blog post rather than an actual paper, obviously.)

Robert Brandom as Social Theorist

Since the publication in 1994 of his major work, Making It Explicit, Robert Brandom has been regarded, within the analytic philosophical community, as one of the most important and wide-ranging of contemporary philosophers. This paper makes the case that his work could profitably be engaged not just by philosophers, but also by social theorists. I discuss several different aspects of Brandom’s ‘normative pragmatics’ – including his account of ‘deontic scorekeeping’; his ‘I-thou’ model of sociality; and his important arguments for a social-perspectival understanding of normative objectivity – contrasting Brandom’s arguments and commitments with canonical positions within the social-theoretic canon. I suggest that Brandom’s system should be regarded as a significant contribution to the theorisation of social practices.


HM abstract

September 16, 2010

I was planning to attend and present at the London Historical Materialism this November – but it turns out, disappointingly, that I’m not going to be able to make it. I’m putting my abstract online here anyway, mostly as a way of pushing myself to write this material up, even if I won’t be able to deliver the paper at the HM event. Obviously this material is ultimately meant to be incorporated into the ‘Brief History of Capitalism’ project, in one way or another. (I don’t expect to be able to write this stuff up for a while yet, I should say, so this post is another promissory note.)

International Credit and the Origins of Capitalism

The recent global economic crisis has placed sovereign debt and international credit at the center of critical analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society. In this paper I aim to locate contemporary analyses of sovereign debt within a broader historical context, by revisiting canonical Marxist debates around the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I briefly outline the principal opposing theoretical positions in these debates: on the one hand a class-conflict analysis of shifts in relations of production within ‘feudal’ society; on the other hand an emphasis on the expansion of exchange relations, and a corresponding shift from autarkic to market-based economic structures. I argue that both of these understandings of the emergence and core characteristics of capitalist society fail to provide an adequate analysis of capitalism as an international dynamic, and that neither gives an adequate causal account of the social pressures behind “so-called primitive accumulation”. I then return to Chapter 31 of Capital I, to discuss Marx’s compressed but extremely rich analysis of the international credit system in the sixteenth century. I argue that international credit plays a far more pivotal role in Marx’s analysis of the emergence and reproduction of capitalist society than has often been recognised, and that contemporary Marxist analyses of global capitalist dynamics could profitably re-emphasise the central role of international credit in the capitalist drive to accumulation.

The Abolition of Labour

September 4, 2010

This began as a comment below a post at Reid’s very interesting new blog The Luxemburgist – but it grew to mammoth proportions, so I’ve turned it into a post here; I hope Reid doesn’t mind. The context is a discussion of the Labour Theory of Value and, relatedly, the question of whether Marx’s politics is (and whether Marxist politics should be) oriented towards ‘the abolition of labour’. I’m of the opinion that, yes, the abolition of labour should be a central goal for Marxists (and I think it was a central goal for Marx). But I don’t have a good enough knowledge of the different theoretical traditions to point at a (not-by-Marx) text that I think makes this case persuasively. I need to do more reading in this regard.

On the question of the abolition of labour, then – the issue is partly what we mean by labour. As you say, Marx certainly has no problem deploying the category in a very general way, and using it beyond the (capitalist) social conditions that currently make it intuitive. So Marx doesn’t think we can abolish human physical activity oriented towards a constructive end (for instance)! But there’s a complex game with the category, in Capital, where (again, as you say) Marx starts off defining it very broadly, and then shows how this very broad category is made available as a category – made ‘socially valid’ (and also socially portable, as it were) – by much more specific social conditions. Those (capitalist) social conditions are what Marx wants to abolish.

The question then is: what exact social conditions are (or should be) the target of Marx’s (or our) critique? I think there are various possible answers to this, in different strands of the Marxist tradition.

One very common answer is that Marx wants to abolish exploitation – ‘exploitation’ meaning (for this strand of the tradition) an economic situation in which a portion of the worker’s output, often understood in value terms, is confiscated from the worker and used to support a wealthy and parasitic ruling class. The usual corollary of this position is that if the parasitic ruling class could be eliminated, such confiscation would no longer take place: workers would receive the entire value of their product; this would be an economically just distributive situation; and the negative features of capitalist socio-economic organisation would have been overcome. The LTV is often used as a foundation for this kind of position: the LTV is taken to give us a way of establishing something like a just or natural reward for labour, and Marx’s analysis of the extraction of surplus value is taken to be an analysis of the social coercions by means of which a portion of that just or natural reward is pocketed by the capitalist ruling class. The goal of socialist politics is then basically the elimination of surplus-value extraction. Labour can still be understood as central to socio-economic life in a post-capitalist society. But labour would be appropriately rewarded – it would be ‘realised’, as they say – instead of exploited.

A second (not at all incompatible – in fact these often go together) way of understanding the kind of social transformation Marx wants re: labour, is that he wants the abolition of specifically wage labour. The idea here is basically that Marx wants the abolition of the institution of the labour market – perhaps as part of a broader abolition of markets in general, or perhaps not. Again, this approach is entirely compatible with the continuing centrality of labour to socio-economic life – and it’s of course compatible with (although it does not require) the idea that labour will, in a future communist society, receive its just reward. So a prominent view in the Marxist tradition would run something like: the LTV gives an account of exploitation; we need to eliminate exploitation; the best way to do this is to eliminate the wage labour market. There is also of course the option of eliminating the wage labour market but not eliminating exploitation: I shouldn’t think many people would advocate for this – but it’s a common account of what went wrong with a lot of attempts to realise communist political ideals (in the Soviet Union, for instance – which ended up with a parasitic ruling class living off the labour of others; there were just different mechanisms for managing and exploiting labour from those associated with wage-labour markets, and therefore a different kind of ruling class).

Now, I don’t think either of these political goals (just reward for labour; elimination of the wage-labour market) are what Marx principally had in mind with his critique of capitalism. I think he’s actively opposed to the idea of a just reward for labour as an ultimate political goal (c.f. the beginning of Critique of the Gotha Program, for instance, or the very end of Value, Price and Profit. He thinks the idea of a just reward for labour can be tactically very useful in fighting for better wages under capitalism, and he fully endorses that fight – but he sees the idea of a ‘just reward for labour’ as basically a conservative idea.) Marx definitely does want the abolition of wage-labour – there’s no question that this is a central political goal for Marx. But while a fair bit of the Marxist tradition understands this goal in terms of the elimination of wage-labour specifically, in order better to realise labour in some other form, I think we should see the elimination of the wages system as part of a larger project to eliminate the institution of labour more broadly conceived.

What does this mean? Without grounding this textually in Marx’s work (which I think could be done, but which would take a fair bit of work) – I’d argue that Marx basically wants: 1) Everyone to have a lot more leisure time. 2) People’s access to the necessities (and luxuries) of life not to be principally mediated via reward for work. [These two things aren’t all that Marx wants, of course – he also wants the elimination of poverty and of various forms of economic and political violence, for instance – I just think that these are the main things he means when he talks about the abolition of labour.]

Marx basically thinks that these goals are achievable (i.e. they’re not utopian) because of mechanisation. Marx thinks that mechanised mass-producing industry – an extremely recent historical innovation (and one of the principal social resources that capitalism has created) – gives us the technical and social ability to support huge populations of human beings in a comfortable way, without those human beings having to spend most, or even much, of their lives working. If you like, Marx basically wants a slave society, but with machines instead of slaves. This social and technological possibility is very historically new, but Marx thinks we should seize it, and create a society in which labour (as an economic institution) will not be at the centre of anyone’s lives.

(Obviously some work would still have to be done in the kind of society Marx envisages – there’d still be a lot of unpleasant non-mechanisable tasks that people would have to do. And of course the leisure time that such an institutional transformation would make available could be used in pretty much whatever way people liked, including ways that might today be pursued as paid occupations. But work for economic reward would not be the principal focus of social activity for the bulk of mankind: this is one of Marx’s goals. In a communist society, as Marx sees it, there would be no proletariat.)

In Marx’s theoretical (as opposed to directly polemical or political) work, he sets himself two tasks (among others). First, to give an account of the social resources that can be appropriated to build an alternative society. And second, to give an account of the social obstacles to the realisation of that society. (This is all part of a general analytic description of capitalist social forms, of course.) For Marx, the very existence of capitalist large-scale mechanised industry creates both an opportunity and a puzzle: why is this large-scale mechanisation of the tasks required to feed, clothe, house, etc. vast populations – why is this mechanisation having the impact it is on society? Large-scale machinery massively reduces the amount of labour required to achieve the tasks it mechanises. Why then is it creating and recreating an industrial proletariat, who must be slaves to this machinery day and night, in the most grotesque conditions? More broadly: why is the phasing out of individual labour-tasks, by mechanisation, not resulting in the aggregate reduction of labour across the entire economy? This is a puzzle that Marx thinks needs to be answered: a large part of the theoretical work in Capital involves the tracking of the social structures that, taken all together, reproduce the existence of a proletariat, even when at the level of the individual firm and industry the overwhelming and ongoing trend is toward the reduction in the need by industry for labour. This account of the reproduction of a proletariat (the society-wide dynamic of the displacement and reconstitution of labour) is (and here, as in all my discussions of Marx (and as you know), I am channelling N. Pepperell’s interpetation of Capital!) at the heart of Marx’s analysis of capitalism – it is, for Marx, the defining feature of capitalist society.

The corollary of this is that the defining feature of effective anti-capitalist politics, Marx believes, should be the elimination of this general socio-economic dynamic – and, as part of that, the abolition of labour. In that sense, although his understanding of the social forms that create and give ‘social validity’ to the category of labour changes across his corpus, Marx never retreats from the early formulation of The German Ideology:

[T]he proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour.

I’ve now finished Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit, and I’ve got Articulating Reasons and Tales of the Mighty Dead here ready to go. Ideally I’d read these and other works by Brandom before beginning to try to reconstruct / interpret the core elements of Brandom’s system – but I’ve got more free time at the moment than I’m likely to once I’ve read Brandom’s other stuff, so I’m going to begin posting on Making It Explicit now, and I can always modify the interpretation as we go. This post is basically just a preamble to a more detailed series of posts on different aspects of Brandom’s argument.

So. I’ll start off saying that I think Making It Explicit is an incredibly impressive work: as I was saying in conversation with Pete (to whom I owe the advice to read Brandom in the first place!), it’s one of the most accomplished works of systematic philosophy I’ve ever read. MIE is not just a work of philosophy, however. Brandom situates himself in the U.S. pragmatist tradition: in a very useful interview available on YouTube, Brandom associates the late 19th century U.S. pragmatists with a ‘second Enlightenment’ – one informed, like the ‘first Enlightenment’, by the scientific developments of its day. Where the paradigmatic scientific advance of Enlightenment One was mathematized Newtonian physics, Brandom says, the 19th century U.S. pragmatists were drawing on new scientific developments: Darwinist explanations of biological phenomena; but also the new statistical and social sciences. The pragmatist project was to deploy these new intellectual resources to provide a naturalistic explanation not just of the physical phenomena studied by the natural sciences, but also the conceptual and normative phenomena of human subjectivity. The 19th century pragmatists were in a sense as much proto-social-scientists as they were philosophers – George Herbert Mead, for example, remains a canonical figure within the social-scientific tradition [note to self – read more Mead].

One of the things I’ll argue in these posts is that although Brandom locates himself, in the first place, within the intellectual tradition of analytic philosophy, Making It Explicit is as much a foundational work of social theory as it is of philosophy. That’s because one of the consequences of the pragmatist insistence on the rejection of metaphysics, in favour of an analysis of the social relations that produce the conceptual and normative phenomena under examination, is that the analysis of these relations need not be treated as distinctively philosophical, but is, also, sociological. In this respect, Brandom’s deployment of Wittgensteinian arguments throughout Making It Explicit could be seen as a more sophisticated version of the project David Bloor attempts in his Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge. I’d like to discuss further, once I’ve elaborated the fundamentals of Brandom’s system, the parallels between Brandom’s intellectual project and the project of the ‘strong programme’ in Science Studies – one notable difference is that Brandom’s system elaborates its epistemologically and sociologically ‘symmetrical’ approach in a way that avoids some of the problematic aspects of the strong programme’s formulation. From there I’d ideally like to go on to discuss the relation between Brandom’s account of the granting of social authority to objects, and the ANT emphasis on the social agency of objects as non-human actors. But all this is work for another day.

The point is that pragmatism – including both classical 19th century pragmatism, and the later 20th century neo-pragmatism best represented by Richard Rorty, Brandom’s PhD supervisor – is one of the core intellectual traditions (strongly naturalistic, but not natural-scientific) within which Brandom locates his own work. Brandom, however, thinks that the 19th century pragmatists failed to carry out this intellectual program successfully: the pragmatist attempt to account for conceptual and normative phenomena in naturalistic terms foundered on the rocks of instrumentalism, and the paradoxes and inconsistencies associated with that doctrine. Brandom’s own work aims to approach the original pragmatist project from a different angle, abandoning the unproductive commitment to instrumentalism, and deploying instead resources made available by the more recent intellectual tradition of analytic philosophy. Brandom believes that his synthesis of the social-theoretic pragmatist tradition, and the logistical analytic tradition, can provide insights into the subject matters of both that would be available, in isolation, to neither.

In these posts I want to focus on interpreting Brandom’s work – I’m not for now much interested in editorialising about what’s most valuable and what’s (to my mind) a bit regrettable in Brandom’s position. Nevertheless, since my own views are, after all, informing the analysis, I’ll say quickly here that I think Brandom overestimates the strength of the connection between the two halves of his project. That connection is clearly a real one, but the normative pragmatics Brandom develops out of the pragmatist philosophical tradition, and the logistic inferentialist approach to linguistic analysis that Brandom develops out of the analytic tradition, are not, I think, bound together in Brandom’s own work as closely as he seems to take them to be. To elaborate on that very briefly: the argument of Making It Explicit forms something close to a circle – beginning with social practices, and ending with the linguistic resources required to achieve objective reference to the world (a world part of which consists in the social practices with which the argument began). But the structure of the book, and some of the passages that discuss the book’s architectonic, seem to imply that pretty much the whole of MIE’s argument needs to be unfolded if we are to successfully ‘derive’ the latter from the former (objective reference from normative pragmatics). To my mind – and I’ll try to cash this out in more adequate detail at a later date – the details of Brandom’s embedding of the analytic tradition’s referentialist analyses of linguistic phenomena within an inferentialist semantic apparatus (itself embedded within a normative pragmatics) are certainly brilliant, but are to some extent incidental with regard to the core theoretical derivation of, first, conceptual and normative content, and, second, a robust concept of objectivity, from a practice-theoretic starting point. Brandom’s own view seems to be that recent developments in analytic philosophy – notably the development and elaboration of modal logic – have provided the theoretical resources that enable his fresh approach to the original pragmatist problematic. By contrast, I’m inclined to think that Brandom’s deontic scorekeeping account of social norms is pretty much sufficient in itself to get him his concept of objectivity, and that the details of the linguistic philosophy Brandom spends much of Making It Explicit elaborating are further downstream, in terms of the development of his argument. Part of the point of these posts, then, is to begin to distinguish what I take to be the central insights of Brandom’s highly sophisticated pragmatism from the research program in the analytic philosophy of language with which they are, in Brandom’s own work, interwoven. This isn’t – I should emphasise – because I’m denigrating the analytic research program, which strikes me as both interesting and likely to be very productive. But since much of the reception of Brandom’s work so far has – unsurprisingly – been from within the analytic philosophical community, and (perhaps therefore inevitably) often focussed on quite technical aspects of Brandom’s inferentialism, it might be worth approaching Making It Explicit from a different direction – one that emphasises the social-theoretic pragmatism of Brandom’s work, as opposed to the inferentialist philosophy of language. The title of this series of posts could be: Brandom for social scientists. I think Making It Explicit contains many very valuable resources for those interested in a sophisticated, philosophically powerful, and empirically adequate theory of social practice: my goal here is to draw out and explicate this aspect of Brandom’s work.