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Hello, dear friends!
So, I started a series of blogposts recently by talking about my recent attempts to try to make sense of what is happening in our world right now. Clearly, some serious stuff is happening – some horrifically, unbearably awful stuff…but also some incredible, mind-blowing, exciting stuff too. I suggested that we as humanity are experiencing what I called ‘ultimate contradiction’. It’s a contradiction because the old is dying and out of the old the new is emerging. It’s ultimate because this is contradiction on a planetary, species level.
I said that I’d first explain a bit more about the little I understand about the dialectical nature of history, social systems, and life. I’d then offer evidence for my claim of ultimate contradiction in several fundamental spheres of human life: economy, politics, social relations, and ecology. Of course, it’s vital to emphasise that these sectors aren’t actually separate at all, but are entirely intersected expressions of human life. But, we need to look at the separate jigsaw pieces first before we attempt to put them into a coherent picture of the whole later.
In this post, I’ll talk briefly about what little I understand of the dialectical understanding of history. I need first to be straight with you and tell you that I myself understand very little, that I’m at the very frontiers of my understanding and knowledge, and that, if you want to challenge, critique, add to this offering in any way, please do. I’m here not as teacher in the traditional sense. I seek to teach; I seek to learn; and I seek, through dialogue with others, to produce knowledge that can help us create a better world for all.
The idea of the dialectic has a long and global history. For a long time, I heard this word in relation to Marxist philosophy, but couldn’t really get it – a bit like the word ‘praxis’ too. But, now, I see it not just as a complex philosophical concept, but as quite an intuitive and natural phenomenon.
At its simplest, a dialectical way of thinking sees human history as an unfolding, evolving process driven by contradictions in successive systems of social relations. I understand history to mean the evolutionary journey of human beings across time, but it is more narrowly defined as the time since human beings developed ‘civilisation’, above all writing, soon after the agricultural revolution that took place around 12,000 years ago.
In Western thought, Georg Friedrich Hegel is the modern philosopher most associated with modernising dialectical thought. For Hegel, history was driven by ‘Geist’, which can be translated from German both as ‘mind’ and as ‘spirit’. So, there’s this supernatural, metaphysical force driving history forward and the reason for the journey is the gradual unfolding of reason and freedom.
Because, for Hegel, the driving force of history is Geist, he is known as an ‘idealist’ philosopher, i.e. ideas shape material reality. Hegel’s idealism was, crudely put, inverted by Karl Marx into an historical materialism that sees history driven by the social relations of production, consumption, and exchange. So, for historical materialists, human beings make themselves, each other, and history when they use their own and collective mind, bodies, and nature to make and grow other things.
(BTW, I don’t see Marx as a materialist in any crude way because he clearly argued that the production of ideas, beliefs, ideology – mental production – was equally a social relation of production and was inextricably connected with physical production. Subsequent Marxist thinkers have made huge advances in developing this vital area of understanding. Indeed, nowadays, any clear boundaries between economic and cultural production are clearly blurring online in the emerging realm of ‘immaterial labour‘. That said, it’s clear that changes in material relations prefigure and provoke changes in ideology and culture. For example, capitalism emerged before the major theorists and ideologues of capitalism and socialism did.)
Anyway, whether you’re an idealist or a materialist, the key dialectical insight is that every reigning ideology/system of social relations has been an imperfect system pregnant with contradictions. From an historical materialist perspective, for example, you can’t do better than to start by quoting Marx and Engels’ classic line from The Communist Manifesto:
What I understand Karl and Freddy to be saying here is that every system of social relations human beings have had so far in our history has been a class system – be it slavery, caste, feudalism, capitalism, or, indeed, state examples of ‘really existing communism’ too. Since the agricultural revolution when humans first were able to produce a surplus large enough to sustain large sedentary populations, i.e. towns and cities, we’ve had society divided into classes: the owners of land; the owners of the means of production; peasants and/or slaves to work the land; wage labourers and/or slaves charged with economic production; merchants for internal and external trade; financiers to facilitate economic activity; women and slaves to reproduce society and to pleasure men; and an intelligentsia and priesthood designated to give ideological legitimacy to the prevailing social order. And invariably classes were structured around hierarchical and oppressive institutions of racial and gendered divisions too, of course.
So, every form of class society is founded on interconnected class antagonisms and structural contradictions that must, did, do, and will lead to systemic crisis AND, eventually,…to the birth of a new social order. However, what is equally vital to emphasise is that there is no mechanical determinism at work here. Is it us, human beings, who make history and there are countless factors, factions, and fates at play. Let’s cite another Marx classic!…
So, we’re part of historic systems that we can’t act outside of, but we CAN absolutely respond to our historical conditions and contribute to either the maintenance or disruption and transcendence of our current systems.
Social antagonisms and structural contradictions
Let’s offer some clear examples to make this more concrete.
The debate among historians over the transition from feudalism to capitalism centred in Europe is a long and rich one that I only know a bit about. It’s generally agreed, however, that the transition took place over several centuries; that there were countless interacting forces at work; and that the transition in no way took place in any kind of linear fashion. But, we can clearly see the gradual increase and concentration of private land ownership that enriched large landowners and forces peasants into sharecropping; we can see merchants bound up with colonialism, violently forcing open and developing world markets and developing slavery-based forms of commodity production; we can see the origins of the modern corporation and the concomitant emergence of financial capital alongside this colonialism. These forces and social classes have their origins in the feudal system, but emerge, ultimately, to lead the rise against the bastions of feudal power – the monarchy and the church – in the 17th and 18th Centuries. So, here are examples of social antagonisms and structural contradictions driving dialectical history.
As for capitalism, we can see many structural contradictions within capitalism. Perhaps most famous is the insight that the rate of profit tends to fall, leading inevitably to a crisis. This is because, while profit (surplus value) can only be produced by workers and nature, individual capitalists try to win temporary higher profits and market share by mechanisation (replacing workers with machines). But, sooner or later, other competing capitalists follow suit and, over time, the general rate of profit begins to fall. Another contradiction is that workers are also consumers, so capitalists seek to minimise labour costs in order to maximise profits, but if they impoverish workers too much they don’t have consumers able to buy their products. That’s just two examples that can drive capitalism towards crisis. The biggest structural contradiction of all, of course, is that capitalism is a system that necessitates incessant growth in production, consumption, and, therefore, extraction, while we inhabit an ecosystem of finite resources that requires us to tend to its health and flourishing. More about that in a later post too.
As for social antagonisms in capitalism, in Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto, Marx (him again!) and Engels famously claimed that ‘the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) produces its own gravediggers’. The gravediggers in question, for Marx and Engels, were the working class, the proletariat – a class of people created by the very conditions that developed capitalism. In Europe, the proletariat was created through the expropriation and enclosure of and clearances from common land, its urbanisation into the towns and cities, and its forging in the punitive factories of early industrial capitalism.
It is widely claimed that Marx and Engels’ prediction has been proved false. In the hubristic days of the 1990s, it was claimed that Marxism had died alongside the Soviet Union and that history itself was over. Francis Fukuyama, an academic-cum-US policy wonk, played the part of a revived Hegel, claiming that history had now culminated in the ultimate victory of American-style consumerist capitalism…
And, yet, the contradiction, the antagonism, between capital and labour remains absolutely fundamental to our lives and futures. How else can we begin to understand the profound and, I believe, terminal crisis that capitalism now experiences today? Nowadays, to paraphrase Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the factory today is the entire world and we can see a crisis in which capital is seeking to impose ever harsher costs and pressures on human and non-human life in order to revive its continued system of accumulation. Evidence of this crisis I will provide in the next blogpost in this series.
Dialectics, evolution, and consciousness
I started this section by saying that the dialectic was at heart a simple, intuitive idea, but then I went off on a historical jaunt for a bit. But, it is just saying that the very structural forces that drive the system, because of social antagonisms and structural contradictions, also drive the system to crisis and the development of new social forces that lead the historical process of its ultimate breakdown and transcendence. Pregnancy is a good metaphor: the old gives birth to the new. Just like pregnancy, it can, sadly, be protracted and painful. But, where the metaphor ends is that children don’t generally try to kill their parents! Yet, it seems definitely fruitful to see evolution itself as dialectical – species evolve, hit problems caused by contradictions in their interactions with ecosystems, and resolve them, taking them to a more complex form of life.
The most amazing thing about dialectical approaches to history is that, of course, the people presenting history in this way have tended to argue that theirs is the great climax of history and that they are the prophetic voice of history made incarnate. And, unsurprisingly, they tend to be white men! So, when Hegel realised that the climax or endpoint of history was when Geist awakened to itself, he started to thinking that he was the embodiment of Geist and so the authoritarian militaristic Prussian state he lived in must be the ultimate social expression of freedom! And the racism runs deep here. Hegel had a lot to say about the French Revolution of 1789, but what did he have to say about an equally historically profound event – the Haitian Revolution that began two years later – an event described by Susan Buck-Morss as ‘the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment? He famously had lots to say about the master-slave dialectical relationship which he saw as driving the unfolding of human freedom in history, i.e. that slaves could only be liberated through their own resistance, but he remained silent over Haiti. Human history, it seems, for Hegel, was made only by white European men.
It could also be fairly argued that there has long been a religious eschatology imbued in Marxism. I can empathise with this in the sense that if you’re experiencing injustice and violence and think that you only have one life, but eschew organised religion, it’s very appealing to want to believe in and preach a utopian revolutionary vision. We all need utopian visions and we CAN build heaven on Earth.
So, yes, maybe everyone at every time in human history thought that theirs was the key period for humanity, but I am still convinced that this is the crucial moment because of the planetary scale and the very existential threat that our current crisis presents to us. I am also convinced of this by the emergent thinking of a growing number who are arguing, both scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually, for the oneness of life; for the Earth as a living, conscious, evolving entity; and for human beings as simply the most complex expression of Earth’s evolving consciousness.
So, again, there’s this breakthrough moment of evolutionary consciousness waking up to itself, and this breakthrough, combined with the scientific, technological knowledge and ethical and spiritual wisdom we possess, is the strongest source of my hope for our future. But, I’m only really learning about this now, so I’ll return to that in later posts.
So, that’s my brief and limited understanding of dialectical history. It’s a starting point to explore what I’m calling ‘ultimate contradiction’, and I’ll continue this exploration in the economic realm in the next post.
Thanks so much for reading