Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"
The discussion on economism per se, while certainly of great importance for conceiving contemporary ideological forms, must be complemented by a review of the social. Social theory, to my mind, originates in those vibrant lines from The German Ideology as an innovation of the young Marx and Engels:
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. (emphasis added)
As they go on to demonstrate, each “life-process” or way of life is bound to certain patterns of interaction that are in turn solidified by power through the exploitative relation to labor, which generates surplus value. But we can also see these life-processes crystallized in the form of what has been called social structure, institutions that we take for granted in everyday life, such as kinship patterns, workplaces, and forms of education and faith, which all have a regularity that doesn’t seem to surprise us in the least.
One need not subscribe to another economism, the customary Marxist kind, to arrive at the social, but simply acknowledge that behind such routines of “false necessity,” in Roberto Unger’s phraseology, lie forms of power that remain hidden from view when we treat the most important characteristics of society as resting on the equilibrium of the aggregate of individual desires abstracted in utility theory.
The church of economism seems to have been erected to obscure the social, in part to hide the extraction of surplus value from the reproduction of virtually all forms of capital—cultural, economic, social, and symbolic, in Pierre Bourdieu’s categorization. That is to say, most of us literally practice our ideology by feeling complacent about our own middle-class routines involving work, play, child-rearing, and leisure while focusing almost entirely on what happens to the “economy,” as if it had an independent systemic pattern of its own that is entirely divorced from our own participation in the workings of power. But as a matter of fact, my use of the automobile, my job in a university, my membership in a church, or my mortgage payments and use of financial services such as banking or insurance are each tied to formal infrastructure that embodies exploitative relations of varying degrees toward ecosystems, cultures, and human bodies.
Marx and Engels continue in the passage cited above, “The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.”
I think the point of this passage and its relevance for our times is that the social is best understood as a set of patterns of living and consumption that seem external to ourselves but are also processes to which we tend to conform willingly. What constitutes these routines of consent that often act on ourselves harmfully and obstruct our ability to conceive of alternatives?
It is not the ideas of the market that do the hard work of generating consent, but the repetitive practice of our everyday lives that reinforces it. Hence the importance of sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and all of literature and cinema, where attempts are made to provide multiple mirrors and lenses to give us a sense of our blind spots. Still, the transformation toward solidarity and alternative lifestyles is by no means guaranteed.