Skip navigation

Category Archives: Papers (school)

This is sort of a piece which starts out social scientific and then devolves into polemic near the end. That is not to say I could not find evidence to support my later claims, I think I could, just that I didn’t in this instance and that caught the attention of 2 of the 4 professors reading this and cost me some fractions of points. Whatever, the themes are auto-centrism, transportation infrustrucutre, structural violence, urban planning, and Foucouldian concept of governmentality. This is on my back-burner now, but maybe it will give more immediately useful ideas to somebody else:

Ends of Governance


*** I caught wind the EU is considering more draconian anti-piracy measures. I am removing this paper from my blog until I have time to revise the paper with respect to provisions of anonymity for the public hubs and the network I analyzed***

Okay, so before I go on brandying about like some sort of know-it-all, let me just say I lack the specific knowledge to simply dismiss Weber, nor could he simply be dismissed even if I wanted. Most of my information and interpretation of Weber is derived of secondary sources. The amount of Weber’s own text I have read is severely limited to the introduction to his Protestant Ethic… I am a little too harsh on Weber here, which is too bad, since my main motivation is to counter Weber’s seeming dismisal of Marx as en economic determinist -which I feel is not too badly presented here. Why am I so fixated on this determinism business?

Weber, and much of ‘Weberian’ sociology tends to dismiss, marginalize, or neuter Marx on the grounds that his analysis presents the subject as having no agency, of society unfolding according to purely objective laws operating ‘behind our backs’; that these laws determine for us how we respond and behave. This, of course, is a gross simplification of Marx -where the model is neither all object or all subject/all structure all agent. Of course, these dualities are a little outmoded, but in Marx’s day incorporating dialectic thinking into the analysis of a society (at least in terms of political economy) was quite a step. Nevertheless, since one ‘don’t need to read him’ dismissal of Marx is the charge of economic determinism, I wrote a formal piece for social theory class about four months ago that fits in nicely with the last two posts on the Preface. It is longer than the recent posts. We’ll be back to quick posts tomorrow.

Tomorrow I hope to finish up the ‘Preface to the first Edition’. I am not sure yet if I will discuss the second preface. Or, if so, in what depth.

Alan Swingewood cautions all who would weigh on ‘Weber v. Marx’, “Only if Marxism is defined as a one-factor theory of social change can Weber’s study be regarded as its opposite and refutation” (Swingewood: 96). In other words, neither Marxist political economy nor Weber’s sociology has all its causal eggs in one basket; to treat either as single factor vulgarizes one or both. Certainly Weber no more believes his Protestant ethic the singular springboard of capitalism than Marx assumes all action and thought materially determined. Nevertheless, a conundrum prevents us from wiping clean this slate, for while Swingewood’s caveat is warranted, the fact remains that Weber structured elements of his sociology as a reaction to what he perceived as Marx’s economic determinism.[1] While Weber brings much of value to sociological thought, the elements of his sociology which purport to “correct” the passive role of the subject in Marx must be dealt with head on, for in many respects they are the very vulgarizations against which Swingewood warns, and Marxist thought works against. This essay proposes three things: First, a passive subject is contrary to the essence of Marxist thought. Second, Weber’s ‘iron cage’ vis-à-vis industrial capitalism’s ‘rational goal-oriented action’ is not unlike Marx’s critique of capitalism as an alienating social construct that by its very nature objectifies and disfigures the human subject. Last, in trying to prove the active role of the subject in social change, Weber, as presented by Swingewood, conflates subjective human activity with an objective conception of culture, crudely predicates material development upon this reification, and in so doing embraces both structure and super-structure as fetishes; thereby re-enslaving his ‘liberated’ subject to the probabilistic directivity of both.


That is to say, of all social factors this particular over-arching one seems at present to influence us most. Weber makes clear he holds no naïve assumptions regarding the influential strength of a society’s prevailing mode of production. Indeed, Weber’s metaphor of modernity as an iron box, ‘rational capitalism’s’ tendency toward rational goal-oriented action, implies concern and criticism of meaningful action transformed into habitual response; naught but the “application of systematic and precise modes of calculation and available means in pursuit of specific goals and ends” (Swingewood: 103). Rationalized capitalism denudes the human; makes an increasingly calculating and determinable creature out of what is an intrinsically indeterminable (self-determining) and active subject. “For Weber, action governed by rational norms is always more predictable in its possible effects…” (Swingewood: 93).  

Faced with the awesome breadth, complexity, and power of social production, particularly a mode which seems to make of society an ‘iron box,’ it is perhaps an innate response to try and assert for the subject a degree of autonomy from/within the process. Indeed, the very notions of individuality and freedom (however cynically expressed) underpinning capitalism’s development demand it. Given this, it is no surprise Weber places a portion of his intellectual weight against crude concepts of historical materialism; as well he should. Swingewood’s Weber is correct in asserting, “…the view that capitalism necessarily develops through the workings of objective, economic laws determined by material forces…effectively render…human action irrelevant…to the status of total passivity” (Swingewood: 97). Historical materialism, as Swingewood’s Weber conceives and critiques, is no more than an extension of rational goal-orientated action into the past. It is a rational conception of history which erases entirely the agency of the human subject in shaping what becomes. Historical materialism is tantamount to the iron box slamming shut so that when society looks back it cannot see beyond to a time when the cage did not exist. This thread is compelling, but Swingewood’s Weber commits two errors: First in characterizing crude historical materialism as Marxist, and via an accidentally objectified subject in Weber’s attempted demonstration of the active role of the subject over history’s course vis-à-vis religion. 


Weber fails to understand the role of the subject in Marxism, and completely ignores one of Marx’s key concepts, namely fetishism. As will be discussed below, Weber himself washes into fetishism in his attempt to free, in the world of ideas, the subject from economic determinism. However, it must first be noted that, regarding the historical role of the human agent, little difference exists between Swingewood’s Weber, “change is always through the actions of human agents… (who) accept or reject the prevailing system of ideas…” (Swingewood: 97), and Marx, “The materialistic doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself must be educated” (Marx in Fromm: 22). Despite Weber’s view that Marx’s historical materialism renders passive the human subject, makes her or him a mere object acted upon by historical material forces, Marx clearly conceives of society as the product of the subject, of human idea and action vis-à-vis labor and production. “The whole of what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labor, and the emergence of nature for man; he therefore has the evident and irrefutable proof of his self-clarification, of his own origins” (Marx in Fromm: 26), or as Fromm interprets, “Man gives birth to himself in the process of history…”(Fromm: 15), “in the course of history; he develops himself; he transforms himself, he is the product of history; since he makes history, he is his own product” (Fromm: 26).  While it is tempting to view the language of labor and production as evidence of economic determinism, it must be remembered that labor and production are for Marx inherently human, subjective categories, and that it is a particular mode of production, namely capitalism, which effaces labor’s subjective character; rationalizes this subjective activity and makes it nothing more than an economic category, labor-power, a peculiar commodity in a circuit of valorization and exchange. “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence…is a definite form of expressing their life….As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are…coincides with their production, both what they produce and with how they produce” (Marx in Fromm: 10). I am a farmer because I grow grain. I am a teacher because I teach. I am a father because I produce/adopt offspring. These are not economic categories but human roles in which function subjective actors generating/entertaining ideas in their brains and realizing these ideas in the world of things: “We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax” (Marx: 284). 


Contrary to the picture Swingewood’s Weber offers us of Marx’s systemic conception of meaning, the social whole conferring historical meaning on individual actions (Swingewood: 94), Marx’s concept of the ‘social whole’ is predicated on the very notion of inter-subjectivity Weber sought to promote. Marx conceives both structure and superstructure as the product of human hands and brains; that society, including and especially society’s mode of production, is and can only be socially constructed by interacting human subjects agreeing (explicitly or implicitly) to construct it in such a manner. In Marx’s thought, something as powerful as money only possesses that power because humans themselves endow it. With respect to economic forces or a mode of production, they rule over us as subjects, determine us as individuals and a social whole, objectify our subjective essence only to the extent that we as agents allow them to do so. The notion that humanity can only be determined by material forces is, in Marx’s words, a form of fetishism, “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes…the fantastic form of a relation between things….to find an analogy we must take flight into…religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor (recall society itself is a product of labor) as soon as they are produced as commodities” (Marx: 165, parenthesis mine). 

Weber confuses a particular Marxist critique of the capitalist mode of production, the critique that capitalist society constructs itself as a sea of commodities determined by production and exchange, with Marx’s entire notion of historical materialism, which is, as discussed above, more nuanced than Swingewood’s Weber admits.[2] Marx’s fetishism and Weber’s iron cage both carry this notion of the subject objectified, of a person tainted by habituated behavior courtesy of social constructs. However, while Weber’s iron box is exclusive to modern, “rationalized capitalism”, Marx’s concept of fetishism is not so limited in scope. Marx sees both material and ideal as potential iron cages, fetishes,  things created by us and allowed to exist as forces beyond our control, “Thus, at the level of material production…we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely the inversion of subject into object and vice versa” (Marx: 990), or “As in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production he is governed by the products of his own hands” (Marx in Fromm: 51).  

It now becomes clear that Weber’s attempt to assert subjective autonomy from the ‘fateful’ forces of social production by demonstrating that “ideal elements, such as religious ideas, are not mechanically linked to the economic structure but actively shape the ways in which individuals carry out their ordinary day-to-day activities” (Swingewood: 95) is ill conceived. Instead of proving the active subject as creator of its mode of production (a fact presupposed by Marx), he merely demonstrates that an ideal fetish, “religious belief…gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it” (Weber in Swingewood: 99 parenthesis mine), and that this ideal fetish correlated at a specific point in time with the construction of a material one. The Protestant ethic, if such a thing can be defined, is naught but a cultural object created by subjects into a thing with the appearance of autonomy. Weber’s liberation of the subject vis-à-vis the Protestant ethic as capitalist progenitor is impotent. If we take Simmel at his word, “The real tragedy of culture is…the tendency to turn the creative subject into an object, to reify the products of human culture and effectively eliminate purposive human action” (Simmel in Swingewood: 103), we see the counterpunch Weber mounts against “Marxist” historical materialism is less a Cassandra and more an Agamemnon.    

Works Cited

Fromm, Eric. (1961). Marx’s Concept of Man. Frederick Ungar Publishing:
New York. 

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 1. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

Swingewood, Alan. (2000). A short History of Sociological Thought 3rd. Ed. Palgrave Macmillan:

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Talcott Parsons, Trans.). Unwin University Books:

Works Referenced

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 2. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 3. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

[1] Of course, given Weber’s rather imprecise economics in which all forms of accumulation are capitalism (Weber: 17-27), one is forced to wonder upon which of Marx’s works his critique is based.

[2]  “…the very aim of Marx is to liberate man from the pressure of economic needs, so that he can be fully human” (Fromm: 5).

This is the third of what will be four papers written for the course I am in: 'foundations of social theory'. I post it here because the green letters look nice.

I’d like to begin this text with a comment. Received from my ‘post-modern friend’, the comment came by way of Auntie Vulgar, and is a comment, says my friend, about ‘the reification of the logos’, and is in response to my polemic, ‘Death and Praxis:

“Here is Lyotard commenting on ‘the abyss between the denotative and the prescriptive’ from _Just Gaming_(Minnesota, 1985). ‘[In] not only Plato but Marx as well, there is the deep conviction that there is a true being of society, and that society will be just if it is brought into conformity with this true being, and therefore one can draw prescriptions from a description that is true, in the sense of “correct”…. But this passage from the true to the just raises a problem, because if one were to ground it, it would mean that a prescriptive statement would constitute an obligation only if…the addressee of the statement is able to put himself in the position of the sender of the statement…in order to work out all over again the theoretical discourse that legitimates, in the eyes of this sender, the command that he is issuing.’” 

I would like to begin with this ‘legitimization of commands’ and the agency of the receiver in meaning construction. To legitimize a particular structure is a choice, though often a passive or structurally coerced one. It is not only a ‘true being of society’ whose prescriptions must ‘bridge the abyss’ to legitimacy and receiver response, but the inherited society as well. People constantly legitimize certain prescriptions of action in favor of others, for the most part (and perhaps necessarily) unaware of the reasons save the most apparent. Society is a complex of de/legitimizing discourse. Something as simple as watching a particular commercial broadcast or purchasing a new pair of shoes is legitimizing discourse –in the former instance because you and I have our meaning making capacities and projected purchasing power sold to advertising agents, and in playing that role become complicit in current uses of monologic media channels; and in the latter case the purchase of shoes realizes the goal of a particular production process so that at the moment of exchange an entire complex of social structures are legitimized: the global division of labor, particular concepts of ownership and exchange, branding and a culture of self bound intimately with the commodity fetish –image as commodity, and of course the functionaly creative and mechanical activity to which so much of our labor is devoted when sold. One could also suggest that a simple conversation with another person is a legitimizing discourse in that it will more or less adhere to certain learned, accepted, and anticipated patterns and norms of dialogic activity. All Lyotard observes here, it seems to me, is the jurisdiction the receiver of a message can claim in terms of meaning construction, and the extent to which they choose to permit the ‘abyss’ between the meaning constructed and the level of receptivity to the prescription for action if any there be. Inherited structures, inherited prescriptions, however, come with a bridge largely and already intact. Such prescriptions, which obviously vary in type and degree from person to person based on demographic and personal experience, can be and often are followed either automatically or out of compulsion.

Some automobile owners in the United States, for example, might opt not to own or regularly drive such a vehicle (for any number of reasons) were it but for their country’s largely auto-centric urban and interstate planning. The rationalization of automobile ownership in this case may be that I must work and enjoy particular forms of recreation and consumption, and that there is only one means of transport through which these are accessible. Or, I may truly believe, as the advertisements suggest, that automobile ownership endows me with greater freedom or prestige, or maybe I just really actually like driving a car. Or, and most likely, it is an over-determination, with any number of subjective, cultural, and political-economic factors ‘determined and determining ‘in one and the same movement’ (Swingewood: 189) a mass of individual legitimizations, i.e. the prescription of car ownership bridging the abyss.

This is dangerous ground, and if not careful I may not be as lucky as the car. Although both I and my example have talked along the lines of Althusser’s relatively autonomous levels of society combining to form the ‘structural complexity’ of a social formation; thereby achieving an over-determined structural causality (Swingewood: 190), the remainder of my response to Lyotard’s statement runs less with Althusser and more along the lines of critical-theory, Gramsci, and Marxism as rooted in subjective and inter-subjective praxis. The essential difference is that while Althusser suggests there is no prescription other than the eventual unfolding of structurally over-determined events, Gramsci and school suggests humanity writes its own history both backward and forward in time.

That a ‘deep conviction of a true being of society’ is in Marxism is very much the case. Marxism implies a cache of normative views on power relations in society. In essence, Marxism advocates that the present mode of social reproduction is unjust and exploitative, and suggests that human kind can and must struggle to achieve alternative social norms of the ‘just’.  In some instances these views do take on an almost messianic character, at which point the Marxist ‘logos’, if you will, is reified; moves from critical-theory to a ‘quasi-religious system’ (Swingewood: 113). Such occurrences are unfortunate since the essential concern of Marxism as a critical theory is the extent to which particular structures and Weltanschauungs, specifically those of capitalism, ossify, reign hegemonic and assume an existence seemingly outside the realm of human influence or choice. What Kirkpatrick and crew call ‘an alienated society’ (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). It practically goes without saying that Marxism as a closed discourse, as a set of particular theories to be accepted or rejected ad hominem, assumes the status of an ideology, very much in the Althusserian sense of the term, and in so doing negates itself as a theory of the practice of emancipation. This is the problem of orthodoxy and dogma.

However, this relationship between orthodoxy and Marxism should not be over-stated, nor made into a behavior singular to the Marxist approach. The purpose of the above discussion on legitimacy and structure was to demonstrate that a given mode of reproduction can only survive so long as the correct demographics continue to act in a legitimizing manner –in accord with a particular rubric of ideologies and norms relatively non-threatening to the status quo, or as Gramsci would say, in ‘active acquiescence’ in the persistence of bourgeois society (Swingewood: 118).  In our particular situation capitalism continues to persist in part because the bourgeois Weltanschauung’, its particular iteration of truth and its particular movement from the true to the just, (“the rule of law”, “liberal representative democracy”, “an honest day’s work”, “the free market”), successfully bridged, and unless actively challenged, will continue to monopolize the bridge between the denotative and prescriptive. So, while Marxism runs risk of orthodoxy, the bourgeois Weltanschauung is for us and many other people orthodoxy a priori.  

While I agree with Lyotard, on a purely functional level, that there is an endemic problem, for whatever reasons, of Marxism’s ability to actually cross the abyss, to actually move more active agents into a different theoretical and practical frame that challenges capitalism’s ‘truths’; question notions of social reality limited in scope to the realm of the ‘objective’ and empirical. However, I would strongly disagree with any implication that the problem is Marxism’s attempt as such. The greatest strength of the Marxist discourse has been promoting an understanding that ‘truth lies not in the facts of the given reality, but in the negation or transcendence of those facts…in our attempt to change the world, in our critique of the established reality’ (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). Marxism, at its best, is not merely an attempt to change the ‘facts’ of world capitalism, but a perspective which asks always “what is a fact?” (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). Truth is inter-subjectively constructed, and as such Gramsci’s immediate ancestors, Labriola and Sorel, are right to suggest “there is no truth waiting to be discovered only a truth which must be made.” (Swingewood: 115). The use of the indefinite article, ‘a truth’, very much implies the subjective, mutable, and fluid conceptualization of ‘truth’ in the tradition of critical theory. The ‘true being of society’ is not, in this iteration of Marx, one particular structruration of society, but rather it is any number of possibilities, imminent realities, for which humanity must actively struggle to make real. “Reality is not a given datum but created through human activity; the goal of socialism is not lying in wait in some distant future but results from praxis.” What is the goal of socialism? An inalienable society, a society actively determined by its agents in a democratic and non-exploitative manner. How do we arrive at this? By “making the critique of alienation speak for popular needs and lead to concrete actions against the capitalist commodity relationships—within historical possibilities” (Kirkpatrick et al: 3 my emphasis).

While it is clear that Marxists cannot afford the naïve assumption that their messages are constructed by those who receive them in such a manner as to engender and encourage a new Weltanschauung –and the elitism in Bolshevism or otherwise will certainly not do. However, it is also naïve to suggest that society is either so utterly fragmented and subjective or structurally determined (objectified) that any attempt at change via ‘human will organized into collective forms’ is doomed forever to lurk in the abyss. In the first instance, the relativist thread in post-modern thinking can be seen very much as a positive development, as it does encourage a mode of thought conducive to identifying and questioning reified forms, even if that questioning is not, strictly speaking, Marxist. In the second instance, structures evolve as agents work through them. The observation of the Frankfurt School, that ‘capitalist societies are closed systems with monologic modes of social communication as a simple one-way process of cultural indoctrination” (Swingewood: 132-3), could start to ring less true. The monologic structure of the culture industry has the potential for further significant change; the diffuse nature, interactive and productive potential of the new tools of cultural production make praxis in general, and Gramsci in particular, more relevant than ever before:

“All revolutions are preceded ‘by an intense work of cultural penetration’ as the rising class aims to subjugate allied and subordinate strata to its ideas. A dominant class is…defined as one which saturates civil society with the spirit of its morality, customs, religious and political practices: ‘The foundation of a ruling class is equivalent to the creation of a Weltanschauung.’ If the working class is to constitute a dominant class it must establish a culture that commands the support of other strata; its world view, Marxism, is thus not a class ideology as such, but the expression of the immanent structural trends of history. Cultural hegemony prior to the act of revolution is created through collective action” (Swingewood: 118). 

The ‘historical possibilities’ have seldom been potentially more conducive to the cultural penetration by ‘ordinary people’ into the culture industry; a growing awareness of these possibilities is reflected in the growing activity and discourse surrounding ‘new media’: ‘There is a battle for the soul of the internet, and if a greater democracy is to claim this soul it will only do so through the work of ‘ordinary people’, entering, shaping, and governing these new means of production, these new communication means (Coleman 2005a: 280). Given the quite real and very vulnerable nature of these new opportunities for cultural penetration, to reject collective action a priori is a futile and worthless act. Relativism is preparing collective actions of its own. Making symmetrical the power relationships in narrative production is critical praxis; a grand narrative of subjective experiences, a great many voices communicating the local as globally shared –a de-localization and democratizing of cultural production, of message and construction –potentially. Already the bourgeois Weltanschauung takes root. “Technologies are never neutral: they are designed, shaped and socially modified in accordance with discourses that are often profoundly political and hegemonic” (Lessig in Coleman 2005b: 185).  Already some give up: ‘the internet will be ‘free’ only where this serves the purposes of commercial development’ (McQuail: 140). Unless we can claim it.

Works Cited

Coleman, S. (2005a). ‘Blogs and the new Politics of Listening’. The Political Quarterly, 76(2), 273-279.

Coleman, S. (2005b). ‘New Mediation and Direct Representation: Reconceptualizing representation in the digital age’. New Media & Society, (7)2, 177-198. 

Kirkpatrick, R. G., Katsiaficas, G. N., & Lou Emery, M. (1978). ‘Critical Theory and the Limits of Sociological Positivism, Red Feather Institute.

McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th ed.
London: Sage Publications.

Swingewood, A. (2000). A Short History of Sociological Thought, 3rd Ed., Palgrave Macmillan.