Diverse Writings 12

Social Ontology

Reply to a Marxist critic

Tony Smith's review of Social Ontology: Recasting Political Philosophy Through a Phenomenology of Whoness

Michael Eldred

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Tony Smith has written an interesting review(1) of my book that invites a controversial reply. Which is more than can be said of the first, uncomprehending German review. I shall proceed by quoting point for point from Smith's review and responding. Although inelegant, this method has the merit of covering the issues raised. 
  1. Referring to my early 1984 book, Smith remarks affirmatively that "Eldred and his co-authors insisted on a systematic reading in which capitalism is the object of investigation from the beginning, with transitions from one level of theoretical abstraction to another justified logically by the immanent contradictions arising in the former." This dovetails nicely with Smith's own 1990 book The Logic of Marx's Capital: Replies to Hegelian Criticisms that defends a systematic dialectical reading of Marx's main work. He erroneously claims that "these authors [Eldred et al.] insisted that money is the only form in which value ever appears", thus flying in the face of our attempt to unfold, through a systematic dialectic of concepts, a structured manifold of value-forms from the commodity and money form through to the revenue-form of value and on to the social forms of competitive society and state. Although Smith says that my 1984 book "has greatly influenced a number of Marxian theorists concerned with the methodological framework of Marx's theory and his relationship to Hegelian dialectics", to my knowledge, not even the revenue-form of value, present already in Marx's drafts for Capital and forming the linch-pin in our attempt at a transition to competitive society, has played any role in Anglophone Marxist debates on a dialectical theory of capitalist society. Only Reuten & Williams (1988, 1989) have a stunted reference to "income sources". This implies that the insights of value-form analysis for developing a social ontology of capitalist society have yet to be taken on board. 

  3. "'Social ontology' in Eldred's understanding of the term combines a phenomenological description of the fundamental structures of human existence with a normative account of the institutional framework best enabling the actualization of those structures." Smith misconceives phenomenology as some kind of "description", which is so feeble that it has to be supplemented by an energy drink of norms. Hence he underestimates or rather, entirely overlooks the phenomenological power of learning to see what you already see. Here it is important also to elucidate the subtitle of my book. Why is there a reference to "recasting" and "whoness"? Why do I hazard to introduce a strange neologism into political and social philosophy? If I am doing social ontology, why does Smith assert that I am providing a "normative account"? If that were the case, Hegel's Philosophy of Right would be just as open to this charge. The latter is a dialectical unfolding of the concept of freedom, just as a grounded concept of freedom is crucial to all I have to say about society and state. "Recasting" refers to the need for radically going back to the roots where the first beginning of social and political philosophy was cast by Plato and Aristotle. Only in the confrontation with these key co-casters of Western thought can any fluidity come into today's socio-political thinking on the deepest level that would enable a recasting in another historical light. Western metaphysics' figures of thought, such as essence, substance, existence, subject, power, energy, etc., that are present today in all the everyday ways of thinking and all sciences, including advanced physics, sociology, economics, Marxist theory, etc., proceed from the original Greek productionist paradigm. This is an important lesson to be learned from Heidegger's momentous, ground-loosening re-readings of Plato and Aristotle. Heidegger's own focus of attention, however, requires twisting. What of Platonic and Aristotelean ethics that remains a separate branch alongside metaphysics, i.e. ontology? Ethics is concerned with good ways of living together, and thus with habitual, customary practices. Today's ethical discourse has long since degenerated into talk of what ought to be, of what is morally justified, of normative principles. The ontology implicitly underlying Plato's and Aristotle's ethics is productionist, e.g. in Aristotle's account of rhetoric in the Nicomachean Ethics. Neither Plato nor Aristotle ever worked out explicitly a social ontology. This remains a desideratum to the present day. A productionist ontology, however, cannot adequately come to terms with phenomena of sociation in society, because it proceeds from whatness (essence) in the third person. Hence the indispensable need for radically recasting Aristotelean ethics as a social ontology of esteem based on a concept of whoness. Hence my neologism. Smith does not mention this crucial concept of my work at all. 

  5. "The central category in the social ontology Eldred defends is 'singularity'. This Heideggerian notion..." My concept of singularity is just as much Hegelian, and both Heideggerian and Hegelian lines of thought are interwoven in my book. Indeed, singularity as one of the three moments of the Hegelian concept, alongside particularity and universality, plays a leading role in showing up the antinomies of competitive social living and the democratic state as a ceaseless power play. Contra Hegel's Philosophy of Right, I argue that the moment of singularity in the ontological concept of freedom can never 'close together' in a conclusion, as Hegel attempts to show. Both Heideggerian and Hegelian singularity, insofar as they concern human freedom, proceed from the "nothingness" (Heidegger) or "total indeterminacy" (Hegel) of individual free Dasein or individual free will, respectively. In any case, singularity is not the "central category" of my social ontology, but rather the intimately intermeshed cluster of concepts: esteem-value-power that is first won through grappling with Aristotle's ethics. In the first place it is human individuals in interplay with one another who, in exercising their individual powers, strive for esteem, value and socio-political power. 

  7. "Hayek, a far more consistent liberal, emerges as the true intellectual hero of this book,...". This judgement derives from neglecting the grounding of socio-ontological concepts of whoness, esteem, value and social power, especially in the all-decisive Chapter 5 of my book. Although I have learned from Hayek as an insightful liberal thinker, I also criticize him incisively in Chap. 5 vi) b) for an ontologically inadequate understanding of market interchange. But more than this: I criticize liberalism in toto for an inadequate socio-ontological foundation. It hangs in the air. Liberalism, being largely Anglophone in origin and sentiment, suffers throughout from empiricism (truth as factual correctness) and analytic philosophy (modern scientific method) to the extent that it cannot understand at all the issues of developing ontological concepts within an openness to time-space where the beingness of beings takes shape. 

  9. "'Value' for Marx is a social property of things, and the private act of embodying labor in a product cannot create such a social property by itself." The problem with Marx's account of value is that it is ambivalent. Like Marxists today, he wanted to have it both ways: both a dialectical unfolding of value-forms and a determination of value magnitude by time under some qualification ("socially necessary"). This ambiguity results in endless quarrels among Marxists themselves, instead of their consistently developing a value-form analytic (i.e. socio-ontological), systematic dialectical theory based on phenomenological conceptual transitions. Thus, for example, Smith continues to speak of commodity value being "created" an erroneous productionist conception that must be seen for what it is. Marxists these days also still want to have it both ways by acknowledging there is such a thing as a systematic dialectic while in the next breath providing also historical-dialectical accounts of capitalist development, which are nothing other than souped-up, more or less refined narratives that are pale and vague shadows of a genuine dialectical unfolding, which must be conceptual. Indeed, all so-called historical-dialectical accounts, which at best are historical illustrations of interrelations among dialectical categories, must presuppose the phenomenon of time that is thoughtlessly and simply taken for granted without ever attaining even a ghostly semblance of a thought-through concept. Here, again, a return to Aristotle is indispensable for uprooting and recasting the ontological conception of time that is all-pervasive in every discourse today. One must first admit that time is presupposed as the universal washing- line on which narrative events can be hung, which is fine for story-tellers but not for thinkers. Even the modern mathematical sciences presuppose the washing-line of a real, linear, one-dimensional time on which to hang their equations (cf. my Digital Cast of Being for details). 

  11. "Eldred 'ontologizes' the liberal view that individuals freely determine and pursue their own ends in capitalism." One must first learn what it means to 'ontologize'. What I add to this liberal view, in a deeper grounding, is that individual freedom is wedded intrinsically with an ongoing power struggle. This is perhaps regrettable for those seeking Messianic Utopias. 

  13. "Eldred's Heideggerian concept of capital..." A major bone I have to pick with Heidegger and Heideggerians is precisely that his thinking has no concept whatever of capital, nor any interest whatsoever in grasping the ontology of capitalism. When I sublate the Marxian critical system of capitalist economy into an historical constellation of being I call the gainful game (which is alien and even anathema to Heideggerian thinking), this does not imply uncritical affirmation but, on the contrary, a critical bringing-to-the-mind's-eye of how things are. I do not by any means dispute Marx's insistence on "the ceaseless augmentation of value". Nor, however, do I ignore the same Marx's insight in the Grundrisse that "exchange of exchange-values is also the productive, real basis of all equality and freedom". In their competitive struggle with capitalist firms, workers are by no means powerless, nor are they invariably the losers, nor are they lacking in freedom or in formal equality with their capitalist and other adversaries. Their exposure, along with all the other players, including the capitalists themselves, to the necessity of capital accumulation as an essential rule of the gainful game, goes intimately hand in hand with the enjoyments of the freedoms of civil society and also with the rare possibility of singular freedom for those brave enough to risk it. 

  15. "Eldred's Heideggerian concept of capital illicitly abstracts from the most essential matter: 'capital' is a totalizing drive that imposes its end on society with coercive force." The striving for capitalist gain, for profit and accumulated profits that can be reinvested, is just one striving among the four elementary gainful strivings of the four classes of income-source owners: workers, functioning capitalists, finance capitalists, landowners already present in the drafts to Capital. Everybody is out for gain, and this is the major motivating drive not only in economic life, but also in democratic politics (the gain in esteem, social standing, wealth, public honour, political power, etc.). The gainful game is totalizing, not capital accumulation. Therefore the Marxist theory of state, according to which the state is nothing but an agency for furthering the accumulation interests of the capitalist class, is perniciously abstract in the Hegelian sense of being fixated on a single conceptual determination. And what is this 'society' on which capital putatively imposes its drive? 'Society' invariably turns out to be some kind of fictitious 'we', as in e.g. 'we, the working class'. The appeal to "human ends [that] necessarily tend to be sacrificed whenever that furthers this [capital] augmentation" is likewise an appeal to a fictitious 'we'. Why? Firstly, because the appeal to "human ends" is a consequence of  modern subjectivist metaphysics that is worthy of radical questioning. Secondly, because the gainful game and the striving to have more infects all humans, not just the capitalists. The underdog status per se does not justify the proclamation that the workers are hard done by. Nor are workers' strivings per se better than anybody elses'. Nor does any envisaged socialism overcome the gainful game it just shifts its rules of play in the direction of the ceaseless political power play, democratic or otherwise. 

  17. "Marxian theories of the structural limits of the capitalist state are ignored rather than refuted." True. My book is concerned with socio-ontological issues of value, esteem, social power, freedom, and not with functionalist explanations of the capitalist state, Marxian or otherwise. Social science, Marxian or otherwise, is the demise of thinking that goes to the roots, which means posing questions of being in its manifoldness, thus opening the possibility of a recasting of historical time-space. This does not amount to the vision of overcoming, i.e. getting rid of capitalism, but of getting over it. 

  19. "Finally, Eldred confidently proclaims that any attempt to overcome capitalism will inevitably degenerate into totalitarianism. Contributors to the 'models of socialism' debate in this journal and elsewhere vehemently dispute this assertion." The term "models" already signifies a kind of thinking that is at home with the (questionable, untrue) scientific method of the modern age. Such a way of thinking precludes from the outset ontological questioning, i.e. digging deeper. Indeed, Smith pays no attention whatsoever to my sustained attempt to think through the ontology of social powers. On this hinges my verdict that socialism must end in totalitarianism in the sense of the annihilation of the free individual as such who is historically possible only in concert with the admittedly two-edged and dangerous reified social power of money. The way of thinking precipitated already in social-democratic states and societies with their social-totalitarian creep painfully crops individual freedom in a trade-off of freedom for social security. Freedom becomes a synonym for democracy, and democracy stands for the era of Here Comes Everybody (James Joyce) in which singularity is devalued. Political democracy, along with its mass media mediation, also often shows the face of mass egoism, for everybody always wants to have more. 'Wanting to have more' is a theme introduced in the early chapters of my book. 

  21. "Twenty years have passed since Fukuyama first made that [end of history] assertion, years in which capitalism has brought about increasing inequality, economic insecurity, environmental destruction, wars, massive global imbalances, recurrent financial crises, and now, perhaps, global depression." This sob-story narrative could be matched with other, more uplifting accounts. On the level of narrative, nothing at all can be decided, since other plausible narrative twists and turns are always possible. Political struggle is always a matter of pitting one narrative against the other. More importantly, the critical diagnosis of the past two decades shifts according to the basic socio-ontological perspective adopted, which is prior to any explanatory narrative and presupposed by it. Hence the decisive ground for debate shifts back to philosophy. Genuine philosophical strife is a clash of ontological concepts. Smith justifiably raises "[t]he question whether there might be a superior way to institutionalize singularity and mutual recognition", that is, superior to a liberal society. Putting aside the consideration that "to institutionalize singularity and mutual recognition" is presumably a contradictio in adjecto, if this question is to be approached in a way that promises any faint hope at all of resolution or even a gain in clarity, the social ontology of esteem, value and the social power play, through considering who human beings are and could be in historical time-space, must be foundational and crucial to such a debate. Instead of calling for an institutionalization, the freedom of singularity hangs rather on the ethos of an atmosphere, i.e. on the attunement of an age. 

  23. "But the position Eldred himself defends suffers from a fatal flaw: he presents a social ontology lacking an adequate concept of capital." In my book I only sketch a concept of capital (e.g. Chap. 9 vi) ) whilst referring back to my earlier, unrepudiated 1984 book, which contains a full dialectical unfolding of a concept of capital up to the democratic state. In later work (Eldred 2000, 2010), the concept of capital is aufgehoben (waived, saved and raised) in the concept of the constellation of being I term the gainful game mediated by the movement of reified value. What I called the subject of competition in 1984 has become today the player in the gainful game. Is Marxism capable of learning something new? Qua Marxism, of course not. It would have to (learn to) question its own socio-ontological presuppositions, to which it remains blind. 
There are many other issues, but this is enough for the time being. 

Literature & Notes


  1. Review of Michael Eldred Social Ontology: Recasting Political Philosophy Through a Phenomenology of Whoness Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt, Germany xiii + 688 pp. 2008 published in Science & Society ISSN 0036-8237 Vol. 74 No. 4 2010 pp. 565-568. Back to 1 

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