Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 8 March 2012

Habermas on Marx: Epistemology, Social Theory, or Praxis?

Here then is how Habermas recapitulates his “animadversion” on Marx in the second part of his critical review of Marxian praxis, but note that already he has turned this praxis into “the critique of epistemology”:

Marx reduces the process of reflection to the level of instrumental action. By reducing the self-positing of the absolute ego to the more tangible productive activity of the species, he eliminates reflection as such as a motive force of history, even though he retains the framework of the philosophy of reflection. His re-interpretation of Hegel's Phenomenology betrays the paradoxical consequences of taking Fichte's philosophy of the ego and undermining it with materialism. Here the appropriating subject confronts in the non-ego not just a product of the ego but rather some portion of the contingency of nature. In this case the act of appropriation is no longer identical with the reflective reintegration of some previously externalized part of the subject itself. Marx preserves the relation of the subject's prior positing activity (which was not transparent to itself), that is of hypostatization, to the process of becoming conscious of what has been objectified, that is of reflection. But, on the premises of a philosophy of labor, this relation turns into the relation of production and appropriation, of externalization and the appropriation of externalized essential powers. Marx conceives of reflection according to the model of production. Because he tacitly starts with this premise, it is not inconsistent that he does not distinguish between the logical status of the natural sciences and of critique. (p.44)

Now, as we showed in the first part of this review, it is emphatically not Marx who “reduces the process of reflection to the level of instrumental action” – in the first place because Marx never properly understood human living activity or living labor in terms of this dichotomy that Habermas wishes to impose on it between the “instrumental” side of human activity and its “conscious” or “reflective” side! There was unquestionably a scientistic and reductive side to Marx’s work that takes us down to that most vulgar of his claims – that of having “uncovered the laws of motion of human history” or at any rate “the economic laws of motion of modern society” on which Habermas predictably lays much emphasis. Yet, as even Habermas himself concedes, there is much in Marx’s practical application of his critique to specific historical events, and most notably his insistence on the historical uniqueness of capitalist social relations of production (in contrast to Political Economy), that directly confutes Habermas’s claim of the Marxian “reduction” of reflection to instrumental action and “disproportion” between his practice of inquiry and his philosophical self-understanding of it.

Rather than carp on the all-too-easily confutable scientism of Marx’s analysis, Habermas ought to have asked himself why and how it is indeed possible for Marx to be able simultaneously to engage in the “vulgar” conception of “the laws of motion of human history” – and indeed even to indulge the claim that human history could be subsumed eventually under natural history (the infamous unification of science)! – whilst still being able to conceive of the “critique” of political economy as a form of revolutionary practice! The reason why Habermas is unable to pose himself the question is the converse of the reason why Marx was able to contradict his praxis: and the reason is that Habermas is illegitimately dissecting human living activity (the Arbeit or “labor”) into an “instrumental” or “mechanical” or, if you like “techno-scientific” aspect, and into a “reflective” or “conscious” or contemplative aspect: in short, he is accepting without hint of a doubt – unreflexively indeed! – the division of human labor into intellectual and manual labor. (Intellectual and Manual Labor is the title of the major theoretical work by Alfred Sohn-Rethel in which he introduces also the notion of “social synthesis”. This is a gallant effort from a genuinely devoted Marxist revolutionary thinker whom we hold in high esteem. It is intriguing, to say the least, that Habermas – though most probably aware of Sohn-Rethel’s theses – fails to acknowledge or even to mention them in his work! Our own divergence from the theses of this work will be the subject of a separate review, but we are happy to adopt them provisionally here.)

To say it again, when Habermas claims that “Marx conceives of reflection according to the model of production”, he is illicitly concluding that “production” is somehow “un-reflexive” and “mechanical” – that, in other words, it is possible to distinguish between a sphere of necessity, of technical and scientific instrumental action (including that of “economic science”?) and, in opposition to this, of a “reflexive” sphere of freedom or ideation that responds to symbolic interaction. In effect, Habermas is reproducing uncritically the Cartesian schema of res cogitans (“mind”, “soul”, “spirit”) and res extensa (body, matter). Indeed, so pervicaciously ingrained is this philosophical Cartesian-Kantian prejudice in Habermas’s entire worldview, that he even has the effrontery to accuse Marx of confusing “the logical status of the natural sciences and of critique” (!) when it ought to be amply evident to him by now – if indeed he had read Marx with an open mind – that no such distinction can be drawn between “the logical status of the natural sciences and of critique”!

Because he [Marx] tacitly starts with this premise, it is not inconsistent that he does not distinguish between the logical status of the natural sciences and of critique.

The cardinal sin committed by Habermas here is first to have articulated a purely fictitious and wholly phantomatic distinction between “the logic of the natural sciences” and “the logic of critique” – when he should know that there is no logic to either the natural sciences or indeed to “critique” (!); and then, Habermas compounds his temerary insolence by accusing Marx of not distinguishing between these two utterly phantomatic entities!

Here Habermas doubtless has in mind Marx’s famous statement in Capital about human beings as “species-conscious beings” – the Gattungswesen. And again we would have to concede that in this regard as well Marx displays all the scientistic prejudices, even bigotry, of the age of Darwin, to whom he intended to dedicate Capital. Nevertheless, this does not entitle Habermas to saddle Marx with a “framework” of philosophical analysis that the bearded thinker time and again challenges and even contra-dicts most notably in the Grundrisse. This is not the place to go into the merits of Marx’s explicit and implicit outline of his philosophical framework, in the Grundrisse and elsewhere; nor have we time and space to trace the historical correspondence between the division of social labor into its “directive intellectual” and its “commanded manual” aspects. But we must take time to delineate two facets of an implicit Marxian “critique of epistemology” based on a reading of Marx’s work that draws upon the Nietzschean critique of Western “values” (scientific and ethico-political) – which, again, we attribute to the political division of human living activity into intellectual labor on one side and manual labor on the other.

Here is a splendid example of Habermas’s inability to see that “science and technology” and “human history” can be at one and the same time subsumed under “social relations of production” and therefore (!) still be subsumed within a phylogenetic understanding of human being as species-conscious being. If indeed, unlike Habermas, we are able to understand “science and technology” as products of human social relations of production rather than as “autonomous, objective” entities with a “neutral logical status”, then there is no reason why the development of these social relations of production in accordance with phylogenetically defined “human interests” may clash and come into contra-diction with their actual asset under capitalism! This is not a “logical” contradiction but what Marx would have called a “dialectical” one – one that does not require a “transcendental” understanding or theory of “knowledge” that is separate from (that “transcends”) the actual social relations of production (the satisfaction of human needs and goals) - which is precisely the reason why Habermas champions Kant against Hegel! -, but rather an “immanent” one that subsumes “science and technology” to those “social relations of production”.

If we take as our basis the materialist concept of synthesis through social labor, then both the technically exploitable knowledge of the natural sciences, the knowledge of natural laws, as well as the theory of society, the knowledge of laws of human natural history, belong to the same objective context of the self-constitution of the species.

Simply breath-taking is the mulish obstinacy with which Habermas harps on this opposition that exists only in his mind and in his neo-Kantian mind alone (!) between “natural laws” and “laws of human natural history” (whatever that means!). And immediately following this sentence, just take a look at this pearl (!):

From the level of pragmatic, everyday knowledge to modern natural science, the knowledge of nature derives from man's primary coming to grips with nature; at the same time it reacts back upon the system of social labor and stimulates its development.

The knowledge of society can be viewed analogously. Extending from the level of the pragmatic self-understanding of social groups to actual social theory, it defines the self-consciousness of societal subjects. Their identity is reformed at each stage of development of the productive forces and is in turn a condition for steering the process of production….

Thus, out of his own creative imagination, Habermas has conjured up a “division”, an “opposition”, a “contrast” between “the knowledge of nature” and “the knowledge of society” which leads us back to the old confabulations about “Subject and Object”, “Mind and Body”, “Spirit and Nature”, and finally – but here is the real immanent political contrast that matters to us: - capitalist and worker, dead objectified labor commanding living labor. In vain, Habermas invokes the Marx of the Grundrisse to enlist him in this neo-Kantian folly:

The development of fixed capital indicates the extent to which general social knowledge has become an immediate force of production, and therefore [!] the conditions of the social life process itself have come under the control of the general intellect.7

So far as production establishes the only framework in which the genesis and function of knowledge can be interpreted, the science of man also appears under categories of knowledge for control (Verfügungswissen). At the level of the self-consciousness of social subjects, knowledge that makes possible the control of natural processes turns into knowledge that makes possible the control of the social life process. In the dimension of labor as a process of production and appropriation, reflective knowledge (Reflexionswissen) changes into productive knowledge (Produktionswissen). Natural knowledge congealed in technologies impels the social subject to an ever more thorough knowledge of its "process of material exchange" with nature. In the end this knowledge is transformed into the steering of social processes in a manner not unlike that in which natural science becomes the power of technical control. (p.47)

Marx himself, in the quotation Habermas adopts above, commits the very vulgar error – one that Habermas, entirely innocent of economic knowledge, fails to detect – of confusing what he will later (in Capital) call “constant capital” with “fixed capital” (plant and equipment – roughly put, “technology”). But this does not entitle Habermas to conclude that by “fixed capital” Marx means “mere instrumental technology” or “knowledge for control” (my God! Where does he get these notions from?) or “Verfugungswissen” which can then be combined with “reflective knowledge” to yield finally – in a transmutation worthy of the maddest mediaeval alchemist – a magical “productive knowledge” or “Produktionswissen” (I give up!) that, according to Habermas, Marx does not “self-understand philosophically”!

At this stage of arcane nonsense we would be quite entitled to throw the whole physical weight of the book Knowledge and Human Interests at Habermas himself were it not for the fact that we owe him the stimulus of his comprehensive obtuse asininity - and, let us admit it, a great deal of intellect in the mix, for which we thank him! Again and again, Habermas goes on (as if repetition could somehow dispel his confusion) to cavil at this “dualism” of “labor” (Arbeit) as mere “instrumental action” (manual labor?) and “labor” as “reflection” or “interaction” (intellectual labor?):

Here it is from the methodological perspective that we are interested in this conception of the transformation of the labor process into a scientific process that would bring man's "material exchange" with nature under the control of a human species totally emancipated from necessary labor. A science of man developed from this point of view would have to construct the history of the species as a synthesis through social labor-- and only through labor. It would make true the fiction of the early Marx that natural science subsumes the science of man just as much as the latter subsumes the former. For, on the one hand, the scientization of production is seen as the movement that brings about the identity of a subject that knows the social life process and then also steers it. In this sense the science of man would be subsumed under natural science. On the other hand, the natural sciences are comprehended in virtue of their function in the self- generative process of the species as the exoteric disclosure of man's essential powers. In this sense, natural science would be subsumed under the science of man. The latter contains principles from which a methodology of the natural sciences resembling a transcendental-logically determined pragmatism could be derived. But this science does not question its own epistemological foundations. It understands itself in analogy to the natural sciences as productive knowledge. It thus conceals the dimension of self-reflection in which it must move regardless.

Now the argument which we have taken up was not pursued beyond the stage of the "rough sketch" ("Rohentwurf") of Capital. It is typical only of the philosophical foundation of

-- 51 --

Marx's critique of Hegel, that is production as the "activity" of a self-constituting species. It is not typical of the actual social theory in which Marx materialistically appropriates Hegel on a broad scale. Even in the Grundrisse we find already the official view that the transformation of science into machinery does not by any means lead of itself to the liberation of a self-conscious general subject that masters the process of production. According to this other version the self-constitution of the species takes place not only in the context of men's instrumental action upon nature but simultaneously in the dimension of power relations that regulate men's interaction among themselves.

This is complete and utter nonsense – because nowhere in the Grundrisse (the “Roh-entwurf”) will we find Marx indulging in the kind of academic hair-splitting exercises on which Habermas built his academic career between “labor” as “instrumental action upon nature” and “labor” as “interaction between human beings” – least of all would Marx have countenanced the “simultaneous” occurrence of these two “fictions” of Habermas’s own making. And that is because Marx knew all too well that acquiescing in such a dualism or dichotomy between “instrumental action” on one side and “interaction” on the other would have landed him straight into the Comtean positivism – indeed the “nihilism”, as Nietzsche so ably unmasked it in Gaya Scienza and in the Genealogie – for the very simple reason that once we admit that human living activity is subject to “the laws of nature”, then it follows just as “scientifically” that the “interaction between human beings” also is subject to these “laws of nature” (or “technology”) – which is exactly what every Positivism from Comte onwards has tried to establish!

So this turns into complete and utter nonsense Habermas’s absurd claim that Marx was somehow responsible for the intellectual emergence of Comtean positivism (yes, I know, it is hard to believe, but this is exactly what Habermas does!) as Habermas almost insanely, but assuredly inanely, suggests!

Marx did not develop this idea of the science of man. By equating critique with natural science, he disavowed it. Materialist scientism only reconfirms what absolute idealism had already accomplished: the elimination of epistemology in favor of unchained universal "scientific knowledge"--but this time of scientific materialism instead of absolute knowledge.

With his positivist demand for a natural science of the social, Comte merely needed to take Marx, or at least the intention that Marx believed himself to be pursuing, at his word. Positivism turned its back to the theory of knowledge, whose philosophical self-liquidation had been carried on by Hegel and Marx, who were of one mind in this regard. In so doing, positivism regressed behind the level of reflection once attained by Kant. In continuity with pre-critical traditions, however, it successfully set about the task, which epistemology had abandoned and from which Hegel and Marx believed themselves exempted, of elaborating a methodology of the sciences.

Wrong! It is Habermas’s attempt to rescue “natural science” from the practical critique of Marxian theory that delivers Habermas straight into the paws and maws and jaws of Positivism – which he himself confirms when he foolishly and absurdly concedes with the last words of his essay that positivism

successfully set about the task, which epistemology had abandoned and from which Hegel and Marx believed themselves exempted, of elaborating a methodology of the sciences. (p.63)

“Successfully”? Really? Yet to the degree that positivist methodology is “successful”, it is so not because it is “scientific” but rather because its strategy of domination on behalf of capital against living labor is effectual! Habermas again confuses “what is” with “what succeeds”, which is the very opposite of what the task of “critique” and “reflection” is supposed to do! Perhaps the singular source of Habermas’s confusion is the fact that he wishes to outline, if not even to spell out, a “positive science” that, as the English title to this chapter suggests, will serve both as “theory of knowledge” and as “social theory”. So distant is Habermas from comprehending the most basic outline of the Marxian critique of political economy that he confuses Marx’s identification of the social antagonism intrinsic to the technological means and mode of production adopted by capitalists to subjugate living labor and reduce it to abstract labor with a simple squabble between “social classes” over “the distribution of the surplus product created by labor”. By “labor”! So vulgar is Habermas’s reading of Marx that he cannot even distinguish between “living labor” and “labor power”, so that the entire problem with capitalism boils down for him to one about “the distribution of surplus product” over and above what Marx unhappily called “necessary labor” – another fable attributable to his pervasive scientism!

If production attains the level of producing goods over and above elementary needs, the problem arises of distributing the surplus product created by labor. This problem is solved by the formation of social classes, which participate to varying degrees in the burdens of production and in social rewards. With the cleavage of the social system into classes that are made permanent by the institutional framework, the social subject loses its unity: "To regard society as one single subject is, moreover, to regard it falsely--speculatively."15

As long as we regard the self-constitution of the species through labor only with respect to the power of control over natural processes that accumulates in the forces of production, it is meaningful to speak of the social system in general and to speak of the social subject in the singular. For the level of development of the forces of production determines the system of social labor as a whole. In principle the members of a society all live at the same level of mastery of nature, which in each case is given with the available technical knowledge. So far as the identity of a society takes form via this level of scientific-technical progress, it is the self-consciousness of "the" social subject. But as we now see, the self-formative process of the species does not coincide with the genesis of this subject of scientific-technical progress. Rather, this "self-generative act," which Marx comprehended as a materialistic activity, is accompanied by a self-formative process mediated by the interaction of class subjects either under compulsory integration or in open rivalry. (p.54)

Habermas’s difficulty is that he conceives of “the process of production” as a “scientifically and technically neutral process” – one that responds to “natural laws”. As a result, Habermas then needs to add to this process as an adjunct or appendage a “social theory” that can explain why and how, given that the process of production is scientifically and technologically “neutral” (!), there can ever arise any “social divisions” in “society” over the “distribution of the product” between “social classes”! What Habermas neglects entirely is that “science and technology” are never “neutral” but rather are tools, instruments and strategies of capitalist domination over living labor. The aim of our revolutionary movement can never be that of developing a “neutral science”. Rather, it is that of creating a democratic society!

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