Radical media, politics and culture.

A constructive libertarian critique of Mike Albert

Anonymous Comrade writes "This is a technical critique of Mike Albert's theory, I point out the positive aspects of his reinterpretation of Marxism, then tell what I think is wrong, and then offer a few suggestions for viewing his contribution in context of what I've said. This is technical but hopefully not BS

The article's legitmacy depends on the truthfulness of a certain type of perspectivism,
but I really hope that it rises above what latter day Nietszcheans have produced. But like them it focusses a lot on the roots of the percieved problems, hopefully the roots are not contradicted too much by the leaves, as it were.

This is a very technical article, but, one that I feel is necessary. I, an anonymous individual, have made some attacks on Mike Albert and Z over the years on this wire, and I think that I’m obligated to go deeper into them for the purpose of enhancing collective understanding. I see the unorthodox Marxism of Albert as being premised on sociology as opposed to anthropology. What does this mean? Well, first it means that Albert has sought to go beyond traditional Marxist analysis by including concerns that are addressed most forthrightly in the writings of Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology. Weber located sociology within the spectrum of social sciences as the analysis of groups of individuals and of why those groups form and why they act in the ways they act. To turn analysis of society to these concerns he developed an approach, which from here will be termed his Typology or his typological approach, which analyzed social groups on the basis of abstracted ideal forms. These forms were abstracted from an analysis of what would be considered normal human interactions, and then the forms abstracted were linked together analytically to form a typological scheme which explained the pattern of ideal forms, why they were there, etc...
What Weber didn’t do was a functional analysis, which is an analysis which organizes social phenomenon based on a percieved social function that they serve in relation to some other objective phenomenon. This approach is much closer to Marxism than is Weber’s typological approach, which proceeds more from the German school of history inspired by Hegel.
The advantage of adding Weberian analysis to a Marxian or a Marxian and Functionalist scheme is that through Weber social phenomenon can be dealt with without having to resolve them into their function in the scheme of things, a la Emile Durkheim, or by reducing them to causality vis a vis the economy, a la Marx. Both approaches limit the social phenomenon that can be considered within a picture of the world, and both shut out the possibility of examining the relationships of social phenomenon in and of themselves, without the requirement that they be resolved into some bigger cause. This is the approach that Albert in his writings uses to try to get beyond the limitations of Marxism, or the percieved limitations, as I will argue.
The topic of books like “Liberating Theory” is how to make radical analysis more applicable to everyday life. Albert assumes a general humanistic sentiment, which says that what all forms of oppression have in common is their suppression of generic human fullfillment, as the base from which to work up a fuller theory. In the process he identifies several areas, Kinship, Community, Gender, Class, and others which seem to be social constants, meaning that these areas seem to ones that generate social relationships, which can either liberate or oppresss, without in turn being generated by other areas, like economics for example. By applying a Weberian approach to analysing how these given originary social relationships play out in today’s society Albert aims to identify features within these relationships that are in themselves social constants, or at least factors which aren’t totally historical, who’s permutations and possibilities provide the basis from which and attempt at liberation of the human within those areas can proceed from. This approach has the advantage of finding within the possibilities that society throws out the concrete relationships which would lead to liberation-there by breaching the barrier between generic humanistic talk about achieving self-actualization and the world in which people live. Albert also spends a lot of time trying to find a way of conceptualizing all these relationships which, on the one hand doesn’t account causality to any of them but on the other hand does not isolate each of the spheres from each other. The sum total of all of this, of rejecting monism and pluralism as it were, is a generic picture of society itself, in it’s dynamic relationships, and with it’s general social possibilities for liberation clearly spelled out.
While I admire the approach of identifying which social relationships beyond the economic are originary, there won’t ever be a time when Gender or Kinship won’t generate their own social relationships, I have to dissent strongly on the view that class can be subsumed within the general conception of originary concepts. I think that class is something more than just another social typology, that what this sociological analysis is missing is an awareness of anthropological relativism which the concept of class in Marxism provides. Anthropology is the study of human culture in general, whereas sociology is the study of the behavior of social groups within the general realm of a given overall culture.

Anthropology is conceptually prior to sociology, and I feel that Anthroplogical relativism undermines nicely arranged sociological typological schemes.
This, I feel, goes much farther than just assuming that various heterogeneous cultures can be explained by expanding the concept of typology to include various potential alternate typologies which would reflect variant historical experience. I thinik that human culture and human relationships contribute to an overall conceptual cast to individuals within a culture that escapes analysis of the motives of individuals acting alone and in various social groups. Furthermore, I think that this conceptual cast that culture gives to people is only resolvable by the use of higher order concepts which deal with human culture as a subject in and of itself and not just as a background for the action of social groups. These concepts bring an analysis of culture closer to the lived experience than do sociological models. The lived experience of culture A does not just include given social reltionships and institutions but also a cultural realm which posses great meaning which frames all of those social relationships, action, and institutions. So the difference between cultured A and B then is resolvable only through appeals to more general concepts, which are in turn closer to the lived experience of the individuals and groups than are sociological constructions. It follows from any thought about changing society in order to liberate the individual that it’s the lived experience which matters most, not the restricted institutional experience taken alone.

It could be argued that although all of this is true that it’s signifigance only lies with the aplication of liberatory concepts to cultures radically different from the culture which they originated in, i.e. adapting Marxist concepts for China and for Africa, or for indigenous people’s in South and North America. Surely within a culture there isn’t the difference in perception and in the lived experience which would warrant anthropological focus on the culture which both originated the theory and which has since generated capable sociology which already has analyzed the society in depth? This is where I think that Albert is wrong. I contend that the lived experience of class, the generation of class structure by society, is such that it has produced different anthropological viewpoints in people who exist within a given society, not just with those who live without. Following the young Marx of the Economic and Philosophical manuscripts I see the division of labor as responsable for generating widely different ideological variation among social classes as made possible by the widely different social experiences that occupying different places within the division of labor in society generates. Furthermore, I feel that the economic relationship sets the preconditions from which the secondary sociological relationships are generated. I also think that the economic relationship is the one which sets the tone for the other originary relationships, like Kinship, Gender, Commnity, etc.. It ‘sets the tone’ not in a monistic way but by establishing the basic framework through which the basic means of existance:Housing, food, support, are in turn determined by. Without these things, the things which economics provides, people cannot exist, whereas people are more than capable of existing in situations, like prision, where many of the sociological relationships are obliterated. Economics cannot be reduced out of the picture then. It would be hoped that the questions of “Who GetsWhat Where When and How?” would be resolved in a just way in any good society and that therefore the question of the means of existing would not lead to serious social divisions like I have described. I would argue against that that the immense wealth generated in the twentieth century was the exception, not the norm, and that the norm had been, and still is in most of the world, that of scarcity in the means of existence leading to struggles over it’s distribution which undoubtedly produce social divisions of anthropoligcal significance as a result.

I would argue also that the idea that the twentieth century brought in the era of Post-Scarcity is a flawed one, one that has unfortuanately been adopted into the New Left pantheon, because although total wealth has increased greatly the internal distribution of wealth within American society and within Western society in general has not changed in a way significant enough to eliminate the serious anthropological class divisions which have been inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Post-Scarcity has not automatically manifested itself under the guise of liberal Keynesianism, and I strongly feel that socialism in the traditional sense is what is required to realize a post-scarcity society. I feel that the trend towards priveledging sociological analysis as opposed to anthropological analysis stems from the misunderstanding that the New Left had about the nature of the society that they lived in: they fealt that primary social problems like Class had been mitigated by the post-war welfare state and it’s ensuing economic prosperity and assumed that the only problems which persisted were secondary ones, sociological ones in relationship to the primary anthropological ones. The economic crisis in the mid seventies no doubt disabused many people of that notion.

But back to the question of an anthropological vs. sociological view of society. It should be obvious that I feel that though sociological analysis might move Marxism beyond facile monism and determinism that it itself can only have significance when predicated within a historically determined anthropological framework. From this the discussion naturally shifts into the differntial goals of the two approaches. I locate work and home as being primary locations for anthropology to start with. In terms of goals I feel that the class structure of society has produced a logic of it’s own which indicates the ways in which a goal of anthropological self-realization by all concerned can be generated: Workers are liberated in practice but constrained in their theoretical knowledge because of lack of support in those areas from school and society. The upper classes, on the other hand, have a surfeit of theory but have no practical connection to nature and to society, relationships which would be established through work. The lived experience, which is the anthropological experience, is also the practical or pragmatic experience: people might second guess what they believe later on but the living of life is conducted through the work of a person in their job and in their community, not within the realm of abstract speculation, what’s more there is a possible pragmatic approach to mental work as well. This seems to indicate that the working class experience, although bereft of the theoretical knowledge of the upper classes, can potentially acquire an even better pragmatic knowledge of intellectual things which supercedes the theoretical, traditional humanistic, mode of learning greatly. The upper classes, on the other hand suffer from the reverse problem: they are cut off from the work of society both physically and mentally, for them the pragmatic sphere is very limited so that people with dubious intellectual capabilities can be guaranteed to succeed. They probably will not be able to pick up the pragmatic connection to physical work with the ease that the workers formulate a pragmatic connetion to intellectual matters, and their prior programming with the Theoretical model is a serious count against they’re future potential.

Therefore, it seems that the working class has everything to gain by using it’s particular pragmatic anthropological setup to expand the worker’s experience, whether in the workplace by reskilling, in the home by having the opportunity of having better things, or in the community by becoming a better citizen, while the upper classes seemed ossified and only useful as potential members of the general crowd, as opposed to workers who will surely be the new high achievers. Capitalism, in this scheme, is seen as being a foreign ideology imposed on workers from the top down, on which has never been succesful in eliminating the working class because of the impossibility of taking the work out of working and therefore severing the natural pragmatic relationship between the worker and the world. The individualism of capitalism only makes sense to one of the bourgeois, never to the worker, unless of course that worker has bought into the upper classes values. But this itself never works to liberate the sell-out worker, precisely because while he may establish a sociological relationship with the upper class he’ll never share their anthropological background and will never, then, be accepted as one of their own. Individualism is based on class dominance, once the dominance of the upper class is destroyed capitalism itself will disappear. The real industrial potential of society has provided the means for the workers to realize their liberation in the way that is natural both to them and to humanity in general: through the pragmatic and technical relationship between man and work, between man and nature. Science and industry, work and the humanities, all can be approached without the individualistic ways of capitalism, but capitalism cannot live without industry. Therefore, liberation has to come not as a liberation accomplished within a given scheme of social groups but first as a liberation of a primary human anthropological perspective by a dominance by a fundamentally inhuman anthropological perspective. The workers, who have since the beginning of time been linked to the world through their work, can finally take over society and liberate the knowledge and resources which have been kept to them in the process of remaking society in a way which priveledges both hand and head in a pragmatic way.

As Marx said, or tried to say, the working classes are the agent which will change society: the goal of socialism is a class free society run on collective principles, but that has to come fafter the remaking of society from the worker’s perspective. Group liberation in the Anthropological perspective replaces, or at least supplements individual liberation, and the goal of liberation is correspondingly non individualistic: in place of demands for the exclusive individual come demands for a liberated quality of life and liberated set of basic social relationships, which will grow out of the liberation of the basic means of existing, the economic support of the individual, his commnity, his work experience, even his political experience, from the starvation imposed on them by the dominance of the bourgeois class and of capitalism. First should come the liberation of the lived experience, leading to a decrease in alienation in work by reskilling and worker’s self control, and also, as said above, by the liberation of the material constraints on the lived experience. Anthropological liberation therefore entails not just liberation of the economic underpinnings of a fulfilling lived experience but also of the social and cultural constraints to the natural assertion by individuals and natural groups of their own cultural creativity and sense of fulfillment.

Marx described as the goal of society in his “Introduction to a Contribution to the Critque of Political Economy” the freedom of people to radically redefine society in whatever way they wished. As he talks about culture in the same introduction it can be assumed that he meant cultural liberation as well. This goal can only be met by the liberation of the general human experience from both the economic and the social effects of capitalism by way of an anthropological liberation which opens up the opportunity for people to individually and collectively determine the content of their society on a deep way, issuing from the basic pragmatic relationship between man and the world realized through work and the struggles entailed in the process of living.
It’s a viewpoint which addresse the relativity of the human experience vis a vis what sort of ultimate meaning it has. In the sociological approach it’s taken as a given that even if these social relationships are just that, relationships between people, that their meaning and importance is only relatively displaced from what the actors involved think it is. In the anthropological experience society is taken as potentially meaningless outside of the human perspective, but nevertheless it’s realized that although this may be the case that it’s still important for people to live lives that are percieved by them to important psychologically and socially, and for this to be accomplished in a democratic and equal way, with due respect to the rest of the ecology of the world, etc...Maybe after that is accomplished we can see if this pragmatic experience of life really does lead us into an unknown understanding of the world or if it does just portend the pessimistic option. This anthropological awareness, liberation, etc...would not signal the end to history...it would not be an a-historical event, but what it would do would be to facillitate the liberation of historically oppressed cultural and social groups, liberation of regional culture, liberation of all that people naturally tend to see and act in accordance to but are prevented from doing by the dominance of the bourgeois class over society. Again, the goal that Marx outlined is a negative freedom: a freedom to which says that the best freedom to is the freedom to which is not limited by a verb being attached to the end of that phrase. A freedom to what? To do everything. And anything, within the expanded notion of the cultural and anthropological spheres.It does not prescribe what social experience should be the product of the realization of this freedom. Obviously this liberation takes place within human history, but, following Marx, the realization of this anthropological liberation would not be the end of history, but might possibly be the beginning of society’s true history, the first one which we all, collectively, get to decide according to natural inclination and equalized economic and liberated social dispositions.

How does this connect back to a critique of sociological Marxism? Simple, in that the anthropological sphere recognizes differences and priveledges various lived experiences that sociology does not. But, however, once this wonderful anthropological liberation is accomplished, I think that there will be a relative need to use Weberian sociology and other concepts of that sort, i.e. from political science, etc.. to flesh out insight into how further liberation within a given context might proceed. My feeling that sociological analysis like this portends to statism and dictatorship is based on the notion that treating history, non foundational, transitory social relationships as if they were naturally given on a deep level leads to the enforced exclusion of radical anthropological perspectives, like the ones that I’ve just outlined, which, if taken seriously, would question the entire scheme that society was based on. Therefore it’s my feeling that any sociological beefing up of Marxism would lead in practice to conservative repression based on the unvoiced anthropological
prejudices that the creaters of the sociological scheme were working on. This would cause a fundamental break between the base of the sociological scheme, the fulfillment of the human individual in all of his respects, and the means of achieving that goal, i.e. the discovery of basic ways of acting towards one another which would lead to liberation in their various spheres if acted upon. The basic sentiment is right, but the means for realization ignore fundamental factors which would render those means inconsistant with the basic goals of social transformation, meaning that the means are historical and positional and therefore without basic meaning. No doubt anthropology does not indicate that a radical Nietzschean perspectivism is what in this brave new world of anthropological liberation we would be left with. There are undoubtedly some social constant in the anthropological realm which would play themselves out in liberated practice, but if the structure determines the possible content, as it were, it does so in a much broader and historically determined way than the sociological analysis indicates, which takes the wind out of strict anthropological or sociological structuralism before the ship even gets out of the port. No doubt general sociological analysis of social relationships like Albert suggests would be very useful as a culturally, regionally, and historically, bounded supplement to the anthropological perspective, but I think that what would be more useful would be a broader sociological analysis which takes into account the wide variations between cultures and between classes and proceeds from there to make some gneral observations on the way that culture seem to create social groupings and relationships in general. That could serve as a grab bag for stimulating people to take possible action in their communities, where they could examine them, see what parts of them seem to correspond to relevant parts of the general body of insight, and then apply ideas in their own lives and in the lives of their communities if they think that they’re appropriate. Case studies instead of absolute studies. All of this essay is predicated on the idea that the requirements of economy which exist whenever it’s embedded in any social process have lead to the establishment of an anthropological situation which broadly mirrors Marx’s view of the Bourgeois vs. the Working Class on the whole, even though, of course the picture presented here is an abstracted and idealized one itself. Local variations and variant histories will no doubt modify and make richer this abstract model, and the model needs serious variation if it’s to be applied outside of America and Europe, as well as with regards to colonial relationships, but I think it’s a start at least for a generalized way of thinking about society liberated from both sloppy thinking and sociological relativity. Or I could just be a blow hard who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, you be the judge.


LeftThought is an unedited radical leftist political web log put up by me, I put things up there fast for their freshness and edge, and I realize that sometimes errors crop up. Please don't take the errors as being the product of naivete or ignorance.

Suggestions for further reading: Individualism old and new by John Dewey

Living inside our Hope by Staughton Lynd

The Roots of Romanticism by Isiaih Berlin

Anything by E.P. Thompson, particularly "The Romantics" and Making of the English Working Class

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

Any introductions to cultural anthropology

Any introductions focussing on the sub-discipline of Economic Anthropology, i.e. Maurice Godelier and Raymond Firth along with of course Levi-Strauss for good measure, possibly Edward T. Hall, although I'm not really familiar with his writings.

The writings of the Early Marx

Unto this last by John Ruskin