Violence of Abstraction

Sayer, Derek. 1987. The Violence of Abstraction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sayer is clearly having a big argument with Althusserians and others who side with conceptual approaches that speak of levels and/or superstructures and base. His first goal is to convince us that there is no real separation in Marx between these two spheres; he says that the relations are internal, dialectical, and co-constitutive. Properly speaking then, “superstructures” can’t be said to intervene in the “economic structure” of which they are constitutive.

Such conceptual mistakes (bad abstractions), in fact, reify the class of concept itself (mode of production) which only serves to fetishize the more particular, concrete form (capitalist mode of production). He gives the example of fruit and lemon; here we recognize that fruit is never really a concrete thing, just a name we have for a group of similar concrete things (lemon, apple, etc). The process of conceptual reification helps consolidate the false wedge between the economy and state, rather than seeing how the two work in and through each other—a relation that capitalism itself helps obscure. (This was one of the points I’ve discussed about Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology.) Sayer shows all this with the seeming elementary “concept” of property. Such bad abstractions lead to reifications, and obscure and naturalize, rather than reveal relations.

Sayer says Marx is in fact redefining what is meant by “’economic relations’ and thus the ‘economic sphere’ or ‘economic social relations’… whatever these may be, which make particular forms of production and thus property, possible” (77). The relation between base/superstructure is neither causal nor instrumental, nor characterized by “relative autonomy” or crude economic determinism; the distinction simply doesn’t exist. Though it would seem to offer some analytical purchase, as long as done carefully.

Sayer’s arguments are also based on his view of the materialist critique of the idealists, a critique he exemplifies by examining Marx’s use of superstrucure. Here he shows how the material and ideal are dialectical, even if the ideal is pure fiction; thereby, the main subject of historical materialism remains the “real lives of real individuals” without discounting the importance of their consciousness. However, this consciousness is not some autonomous being that does things, as in Hegelian’s “spirit.” “Material and ideal can be separated, for the social world, only at the expense of ‘abstraction’ and reification of both” (88).

The state itself is abstracted through the process of capitalist expansion in the same way as individuals begin to see themselves as autonomous beings in a process that is, paradoxically, fundamentally collective—i.e. capitalism. “Nothing I have said, or quoted from Marx, is in any way intended to deny the reality of organs, institutions or agencies of government or law as such. That would absurd. It is the reality of their apparent separation from capitalism’s ‘economic structure’—its essential relations—which is at issue” (109).

“I would argue that historical materialism can be determinate a posteriori to the precise extent that it eschews the temptation spuriously to foreclose empirical and historical questions by a priori speculative construction” (148).

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