Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(348)

István Mészáros, Monthly Review Press, £20

Politics is often presented as the "art of the possible" - an endless process of negotiation and compromise between individuals and groups making deals while aiming at divergent ends. From this perspective the desperate courtship of the Liberal Democrats by both Labour and Tory politicians after May's election is the political corollary of human nature: individuals have different needs, wants and desires, and (democratic) politics is the messy way in which we try to realise them together. This "common sense" suggests that there is nothing remarkable about the desperate attempts of David Cameron and Gordon Brown to woo Nick Clegg.

Human life, however, is not so simple. The reason Clegg was able to flirt with both Cameron and Brown is that all three party leaders view the world from broadly similar perspectives. They assume as natural the capitalist social relations that gave rise to the economic crisis, and therefore accept as natural the capitalist solution to the crisis: to make workers pay. The fact that this "solution" was a good part of the cause of the crisis in the first place seems not to enter their heads.

But why should something so obvious remain a mystery to them? The fundamentals of the answer to this problem are explored by the Marxist philosopher István Mészáros in this difficult but very rewarding book. Extending insights from the tenth of Karl Marx's famous Theses on Feuerbach, in which Marx suggests that "the standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity", Mészáros explores the essential limits of modern (post 17th century) political thought. He argues that since theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther take as self-evident the standpoint of the individual in civil (bourgeois) society they are unable to comprehend both the historical novelty of capitalism and consequently its transitory nature.

As isolated individuals in the marketplace we tend to view the world as a readymade thing over which we have little or no power. From this perspective the social world appears naturalised, without history - "It's just the way it is." Of course, thinkers who view society from this standpoint are able to see history in terms of one damn thing happening after another, but it is difficult for them to comprehend the fundamental novelty of modern social relations.

One problematic consequence of this approach is that by universalising the modern concept of the individual it makes fools of all previous thinkers, the Greeks included, for not noticing something as obvious as our individuality.

At one level it is obvious that we are individuals. The problem lies in identifying the nature of individuality. In the marketplace we tend to interact with each other merely as collections of buyers and sellers in competition. By starting from these seemingly natural relations modern theory tends to assume human life is either a "war of all against all" or at best a structured compromise between egoistic individuals who recognise that they must rein in their desires to keep the peace.

Despite their superficial differences, because liberal and conservative political philosophers assume the standpoint of the individual (what Marx called the standpoint of civil society or political economy) they take positions along this spectrum. By contrast, Marx starts out from the perspective of workers' struggles against their exploitation - note his incredibly detailed discussion of the struggle over the working day in Capital. Thus he is able to illuminate both the exploitative core of the supposedly free wage labour relationship and its genesis. That's why Capital is subtitled "A Critique of Political Economy".

Marx's "new materialism" thus points to the historical coordinates of modern egoistic individualism in the commodification of labour through the separation of peasants from their land. It also points to the real living alternative to it: the social humanity expressed in the relations of solidarity exhibited by workers' collective struggles against the effects of their commodification.

Mészáros shows how this perspective allows Marx to recognise the difference between what he calls first and second order mediations. The universal relations between people and nature are confused by bourgeois thinkers with the specific capitalist ways these relations are realised in the modern world. This allows him to recognise the embryo of a real living alternative to the rule of capital in the struggles of workers to take democratic control of their lives. Thus unlike Tory, Lib Dem and, unfortunately, Labour politicians who naturalise the present destructive system, Marx and Mészáros recognise in the collective struggles of workers for freedom a real socialist alternative to their pseudo-social coalition of cutters.

Mészáros's book is therefore a powerful defence of the Marxist orientation towards workers in struggle from which readers of Socialist Review will have much to learn.