Interpreting the World (Without Necessarily Changing It)

Barbara Epstein

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

EVEN MARX'S MOST ABSTRUSE WORKS OF PHILOSOPHICAL CRITICISM were suffused with the intention of ending "man's inhumanity to man" -- a perspective given its most ringing expression in The Communist Manifesto, where intellectual analysis and the call to action are fused. The unity of theory and practice has remained a basic precept of Marxism. Still, the distance between them has grown considerably over the course of the 20th century. Massive social changes since Marx's time call for corresponding changes in theory. And transforming theory requires at least some degree of autonomy from the more immediate demands of political practice (themselves, in turn, driven by theoretical assumptions). Yet there is a danger that the gap between interpretation and the world it interprets will continue to grow -- so that left theory, unanchored by practice, takes leave of reality. Marxist poststructuralism, which has recently emerged as a trend among left intellectuals, appropriately asks how Marxism should be rethought. But it is also a striking instance of the divorce of theory from the practice of social change.

Poststructuralism first emerged among Parisian thinkers of the late 60s and early 70s as an intellectual counter to Marxism -- which they did not always distinguish from the rigid and Stalinist French Communist Party. Throughout the 70s and 80s, as poststructuralism drifted across the Atlantic and took hold in intellectual circles in the U.S., it continued to define itself against the legacy of Marx. Though a few theorists maintained ties to Marxism, in general poststructuralist discourse equated Marx's legacy with "orthodox Marxism," dismissed as naively economistic. Over the last decade or so, the relationship between Marxism and poststructuralism has grown more complicated: articulations of Marxist poststructuralism have become dominant in some sectors of radical or progressive intellectual activity. No doubt many leftists simply ignore the literature of Marxist structuralism and its poststructuralist successor. Often it is intimidatingly dense, obscure, and jargon-ridden. Yet regardless of how widely read (or ignored) this material may be, it raises an issue crucial to left politics -- though rarely addressed explicitly. To put it in the argot of the academy: is it a good idea to make anti-essentialism the intellectual basis of left analysis?

GRASPING THE TERMS OF THIS ARGUMENT REQUIRES A DETOUR through recent intellectual history. Both structuralism and its successors began with a sharp rejection of the humanist Marxism most frequently associated with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, which placed the human being ("man" in the vocabulary of the day) at the center of philosophy and politics. Marxism à la Sartre insisted on the capacity of individual humans to act to change their circumstances. Structuralist thinkers rejected this view. They argued that humans are not simply constrained by structures, linguistic or social. Rather, people are actually constituted (that is, produced) by those structures -- and so cannot free themselves from, or act outside, the force-fields of language, culture, and society. Thus the structures, not human beings, should be the focus of philosophy.

Especially important for subsequent radical thinkers was the work of Louis Althusser, who sought to create a Marxist structuralism which recognized the decisive role of economic forces yet did not ignore the role of non-economic structures. "Vulgar Marxism" stressed the determination of the superstructure by the base. Humanist Marxism, if not ignoring economic reality entirely, emphasized the freedom of the human subject. Althusser's "anti-humanist" Marxism presented a concept of overdetermination: individuals were determined of intersecting structures, not all of them economic. Althusser insisted, though, that economic forces were determinative "in the last instance" (leading many to ask how we would know when we had arrived at "the last instance"). Social phenomena were not manifestations of a single "essence" (whether that be human freedom, for the Sartreans, or economic infrastructure, for orthodox Marxists). The search for such an essence was, at best, irrelevant to political struggles; at worst, the structuralist Marxists thought, essentialism was the last refuge of ideology.

Poststructuralists have continued along the route mapped by structuralist anti-humanism -- and they have pushed the concept of overdetermination even further than Althusser did, until they arrive at an anti-foundationalism that rejects the possibility of basic causes. Althusser believed that some causes had more weight than others; he, at least, regarded economic forces as decisive "in the last instance," whatever that might mean. The rigorous anti-essentialism of poststructuralism -- including the Marxist variety -- argues that all causes are equal, that no social force can be assigned a greater weight than any other. This current of thinking has converged with -- and sometimes explicitly drawn upon -- Nietzsche's view of the will to power as the ground of human relations, his suspicion of rationality, and his rejection of universal knowledge and of the rational subject

FOR INTELLECTUALS IN THE UNITED STATES, THIS GENERAL THEORETICAL TREND crystallized with the publication of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics (1985)1 and the founding, in 1988, of the journal Rethinking Marxism. Laclau and Mouffe argue that Marx's view of the working class as the bearer of socialism introduced an essentialism that distorted the Marxist perspective generally, creating the basis for Leninist and Stalinist authoritarianism. They argue that political identities and positions must be understood, not as the product of economic forces, but as the discursive effects of political practices and conflicts. For Laclau and Mouffe, radical democratic politics must draw from, yet profoundly revise, Antonio Gramsci's conception of hegemony. They regard him as a precursor of anti-essentialism -- though one not, unfortunately, quite free of essentialist conceptions. In particular, there is the problem that, for Gramsci, the working class must play a central role in the construction of a socialist or left hegemonic project. Laclau and Mouffe's theoretical work severs the Marxist link between class and economic forces (essentialist notions, in their view), and culture and politics (sites of discourse, of the open and unfixed, the terrain of construction rather than constraint or determinacy).

If Hegemony and Socialist Strategy offered the manifesto for the intellectual mini-movement that has formed around Marxist poststructuralism, the major institutional expression of this movement has been the journal Rethinking Marxism, (RM) which over the past decades has sponsored a series of national conferences. Not every paper in Rethinking Marxism (or presented at its conferences) has been directed at a synthesis of Marxism and poststructuralism; yet RM remains the major site for the development of this perspective. Political economy has been the main concern of the RM project, followed by politics. The effect, whatever the region of the interventions, has been to define anti-essentialist perspectives as necessary for left or radical politics. Radicalism thus becomes identified with re-interpretation or skepticism; radical politics is equated with cultural politics.

SOME MARXIST POSTSTRUCTURALISTS HAVE CRITICIZED LACLAU AND MOUFFE for rejecting class and consigning the category of the economic to the realm of essentialism. Jonathan Diskin and Blair Sandler, for instance, argue that class and the economy should be rethought in anti-essentialist terms, rather than simply discarded2. They point out that Marx understood economic concepts (such as class and commodity) not as fixed, but as constructed by, and expressions of, social relations. Diskin and Sandler nevertheless see Laclau and Mouffe as contributing to their own project of developing an anti-essentialist understanding of political economy and politics.

This project is continued by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, both editors and founders of Rethinking Marxism. Their book Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy3 treats the debate over economic determinism as central to the development of Marxism. Marx and Engels rejected simplistic models of economic determinism, but the question remains unresolved within Marxism. Some Marxists subsequently adopted an economistic perspective (Eduard Bernstein and others associated with the Second International); and many Marxist-identified movements have assumed a direct relationship between class position and politics. Resnick and Wolff argue that only a minority of Marxists have rejected the equation between Marxism and economic determinism -- though this minority subsumes a lengthy and various list of theorists, including Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Reich, the Frankfurt School theorists, Marcuse, and Sartre. Many of these figures have espoused philosophies in which some (suprahistorical) conception of "man" or "the human project" is treated as the core of history. As an alternative, Resnick and Wolff call for a anti- or non-essentialist Marxism, guided by a concept of overdetermination in extremis -- the mutual construction of all social processes, a rejection of any division between cause and effect, or of the identification of any realm of society as finally determinant over any other.

Resnick and Wolff acknowledge that Marxism places class at the center of social analysis, so that other categories (race and gender, for instance) are secondary to it. They defend this on grounds that every theory must have a point of entry. Class, they write, is that point for Marxism. This concession seems far removed from Marx's view of class exploitation as the root of social injustice, and his passionate opposition to it. Judging one's account of reality by whether or not it adheres to a strict standard of anti-essentialism produces a theory uninterested in reality. A theory that turns in on itself in this way also quickly becomes dogmatic. Resnick and Wolff show where theory can go when driven by the pursuit of anti-essentialism, unmitigated by any recognition of an underlying reality. Althusser's concept of overdetermination did not prevent him from recognizing that some causes have more weight than others. By Resnick and Wolff's standards, this is an essentialist view.

The project of developing an anti-essentialist political economy is also taken up by J. K. Gibson-Graham in The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy4 Gibson-Graham describes her work as influenced by poststructuralist feminist theory and post-Marxism (a term subsuming poststructuralist Marxism). Gibson-Graham criticizes Marxism for conceiving capitalism as a system: theory thereby bestows on capital a degree of power it would not possess if it were discursively constructed as, for instance, just one set of practices among many others. She argues that

it is the way capitalism has been "thought" that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supersession. It is therefore the ways in which capitalism is known that we wish to delegitimize and displace...If it were possible to inhabit a heterogeneous and open-ended economic space whose identity was not fixed or singular (the space potentially to be vacated by a capitalism that is necessarily and naturally hegemonic) then a vision of noncapitalist economic practices as existing and widespread might be able to be born; and in the context of such a vision, a new anticapitalist politics might emerge. . . (ibid. p. 5)

Gibson-Graham describes her project as an effort to challenge "essentialist" representations of capitalism. The virtually uncontested dominance of capitalism can be seen as a complex product of a variety of discursive commitments, including organicist social conceptions, heroic historical narratives, evolutionary scenarios of social development, and essentialist, phallocentric, or binary patterns of thinking. It is through these discursive figurings and alignments that capitalism is constituted as large, powerful, persistent, active, expansive, dynamic, transformative; systemic, self-reproducing, rational, lawful, self-rectifying; organized and organizing, centered and decentering...victorious and ascendant, self-identical, self-expressive, full, definite, real, positive, and capable of conferring identity and meaning. (ibid. p. 4)

It is not at all clear from this account whether or not Graham-Gibson makes any real distinction between the discourse about capitalism and capitalism itself. She insists that "it is the way capitalism has been 'thought' that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supercession. It is therefore the ways in which capitalism is known that we wish to delegitimize and displace...." She hopes to make the economy less subject to "definitional closure" -- to open up a heterogeneous, open-ended space, neither fixed nor singular, in the place of a capitalism "that is necessarily and naturally hegemonic." This would enable a vision of noncapitalist economic practices to emerge, thereby furthering an anti-capitalist politics. (ibid. pp. 4-5)

Gibson-Graham anticipates the charge that this account of the Marxist view of capitalism is built on exaggerations and distortions. (It would be difficult to find a Marxist who regards capitalism as naturally hegemonic and untranscendable, simply because it is a system). Gibson-Graham concedes that she has presented a straw man -- "or more accurately a bizarre and monstrous being that will never be found in pure form in any other text." Even so, the monster must be challenged. And because it has been discursively created, the challenge itself, according to Gibson-Graham, must be discursive.

"The question becomes," she writes, "what to do with the monster? Should we refine it, cut it down to size, render it once more acceptable, unremarkable, invisibly visible?" No, she writes; for in doing so, we might lose sight of its grotesqueness. Capitalism -- refined and redefined -- would still be capable of "relegating noncapitalism to a space of necessary weakness and defeat." Gibson-Graham calls for an anti-essentialist project of "supplanting the discourse of capitalist hegemony with a plurality and heterogeneity of economic forms." (ibid. pp. 8-10) Capitalist production, then, should be seen as only one set of economic practices among many -- not as an integral system encompassing and subordinating "non-capitalist" forms such as self-employment and household economy, but as something on a par with these and other alternative forms.

By this account, the U.S. economy is no longer capitalist. Instead, it is a site of diverse economic practices -- none with more power to shape society than any others. Capitalism has been brought under control; discursively, at least, it is largely de-fanged. We can challenge capitalism, it seems, by refusing to believe that it holds sway over our society. Gibson-Graham argues her political economy on grounds that her commitment to an anti-essentialist perspective requires it -- not that it makes reality more intelligible.

A FINAL EXAMPLE OF POST-STRUCTURALIST/ANTI-ESSENTIALIST MARXISM comes in "Wounded Attachments" by Wendy Brown, a critique of "identity politics" as a species of moralism endemic to the United States in the late 20th century. Arguing that the proliferation and politicization of identities is a product of history, Brown ponders why "identity's desire for recognition [so often seems] to breed a politics of recrimination and rancor...a tendency t reproach power rather than aspire to it, to disdain freedom rather than practice it?"5 She argues that liberalism -- as a philosophy, and as incarnated in the liberal state -- was based on a détente between the particular and the universal in which particularistic "I"s reconciled themselves with an abstract, ostensibly contentless, "we." In the late 20th century, this reconciliation has largely unravelled. The state has lost its appearance of universality, and individual citizens have largely ceased to identify with the state in any substantive way. And so, Brown argues, the varieties of identity politics flourish in the gap that has opened up between the state and the individual.

Many on the left regard gender, race, and sexuality as continuations of -- or, at times, as substitutes for -- the left politics traditionally grounded in working-class struggles. Yet Brown, to the contrary, sees the new identity-claims as tied to a relegitimation of capitalism. Identity politics protest against the exclusion of various groups from what is taken to be white, middle-class life in the U.S.: relative prosperity, a patriarchal, privatized nuclear family. While seeming to protest against institutionalized norms, identity politics actually presents a notion of "justice that reinscribes a bourgeois (masculinist) ideal as its measure." (ibid. p. 59)

The result, Brown argues, is a politics of resentment rather than social transformation. Late 20th-century America is characterized by the "desacralization" of society (and widespread sense of loss of meaning), the fragmentation of associations and networks, and the increasingly pervasive power of capital and of the bureaucratized state. In such conditions, Nietszche's view of ressentiment takes on a new relevance: fed by a paralyzed sense of merely reacting to frustrations, ressentiment converts the feeling of powerlessness into the conviction of moral superiority. This is, Brown writes, "the reworking of pain into a negative form of action." Exclusion or suffering become its only weapon.

Brown is right that much of what now passes for radical politics is based on values that are, in origin, bourgeois. Given the absence of a coherent challenge to capitalism from the left, how could it be otherwise? Brown differentiates her critique of identity politics from that of "a nostalgic and broken humanist left" as well as reactionary attacks on it from the right. She wants to shift from the position-assuming activity of "dispensing blame" to a politics that involves "inhabit[ing] a necessarily agonistic theater . . . discursively forging an alternative future."6 Yet one might well describe this call for a "discursive" politics as the renunciation of attempts to locate and address the sources of continuing subjugation. Brown is perceptive when describing the worst of identity politics. And in a culture in which victim status confers symbolic power, such claims become political capital. But movements for social change are based on protest against injustices to particular groups. It is hard to imagine such a movement that does not at times hold onto injuries of the past as legitimation for its present claims against society. (Many of these injuries continue, if in new forms, and need to be addressed). Nor does protest lead only to resentment and moralism; it can also foster a commitment to a better world for everyone, based on encompassing, or universal, conceptions of truth and justice. Brown misses the difference between moralism and morality. The former poisons radical politics, the latter is necessary to it.

THE INTERVENTIONS OF POSTSTRUCTURALIST MARXISTS into economic and political thought show a provocative, but also troubling, orientation toward play. Their thinking emphasizes the openness of possibilities; it questions restraints, and denies inherent connections between causes and effects. This approach is appealing when it sets itself against intellectual rigidity. It asks whether there might not be more possibilities than have been considered, more paths to explore than allowed for in existing theory. Yet skepticism is not a sufficient basis fr radicalism, nor is playfulness. An intellectual practice so grounded will tend to sail off into the stratosphere -- losing any connection with actual or possible social struggles, and with the goal of egalitarian social change as a whole. Poststructuralism (whether Marxist or otherwise) is playful at its best, sectarian at worst; and the slide from one to the other can take place very quickly. Anti-essentialism is hardly the only dogma to plague the left intellectual world; but it does seem to be the leading contender today. And if those who are in positions of power and influence have clear, coherent, explicit goals, while the left understands politics as a game of escalating skeptical questioning, it is not hard to figure out who is going to prevail.

Another danger of understanding politics as play is that, in losing sight of concrete goals, it sifts into play in a different sense: namely, playing the game. In many large universities the powers-that-be have set the terms: either compete for corporate funds (or, following the same market-driven logic, for stardom or celebrity status), or accept loss of resources and prestige. The question for left academics is: do we challenge these choices or do we play the game to best advantage, putting aside the question of what the consequences may be?

So far the left within the universities has either played the game or failed to challenge it. There has been little collective effort to present an alternative agenda from the left. Few left academics are in the fields where the pursuit of large corporate funds is an option. But many are caught up in the star system -- a few as stars, some as would-be stars, and much larger numbers as audience. Participation in the star system vastly outweighs any critique of the way in which it has accelerated stratification and promoted a pursuit of the new and trendy that connotes a commodification of knowledge. The university is probably the only institution where the left is large and prominent, and where it noticeably makes a difference whether radicals challenge these trends or accommodate themselves to them.

The habit of collective action has mostly receded into memory, and the links that might make it possible have become quite frayed. Current trends in theory reflect this situation more than they cause it, but they also play a role in perpetuating it. A conception of politics that drains it of a sense of urgency and regards coherent goals with skepticism helps to tip the balance toward accommodation. Rejecting anti-essentialism as the guiding principle of left analysis and politics means reviving and expanding socialist humanism. This does not mean simply bringing back outmoded versions of humanism (in which the white, propertied, patriarchal male stands for humanity, and the western Enlightenment is presented as the only legitimate cultural model). But it does mean linking socialism to the effort to construct a better society -- better for humans, and better for the natural environment. Any socialist criticism of the existing order brings us into the domain of moral values. More urgently than the interpretation of interpretations, we need a discussion of how to define those values, what a better society might look like, and how to get there.


  1. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso, 1985. return

  2. Jonathan Diskin and Blair Sandler, "Essentialism and the Economy in the Post-Marxist Imaginary: Reopening the Sutures," Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 6, No. 3, 28-47. return

  3. Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. See especially chapters one, "A Marxist Theory," pp. 1-37, and two, "Marxian Epistemology," pp. 38-108. return

  4. J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. "Gibson-Graham" is the writing persona of Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. return

  5. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 54-55. return

  6. Brown, pp. 75-76. For a lengthier discussion of what Brown regards as the incompatibility of politics, including radical politics, on the one hand, and truth and morality on the other, and of the relation she draws between truth, morality, and "ressentiment," see the previous essay in States of Injury, Postmodern Exposures, Feminist Hesitations. return

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