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Date: Sun, 31 Dec 2000 12:01:34 -0500
Reply-To: brownh@HARTFORD-HWP.COM
From: Haines Brown <brownh@HARTFORD-HWP.COM>
Subject: class as process
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Class as process (initial proposition)

By Haines Brown, 31 December 2000

I recently joined this list, but have found it to be rather quiet. So allow me to put foward a proposition that has drawn my interest over the years. I will try to put it in a manner that will help focus discussion. That is, I hope people will first attack the underlying axioms, and only if these axioms stand, turn then to the proposition itself.

The proposition:

It is simple enough: What distinguishes a Marxist (in the sense of a distinctively modern working-class view) notion of "class" is that it represents a "process" rather than a bundle of empirical traits.

A philosophical axiom:

I assume that to represent something as a process, it entails defining it as being essentially causally connected. That is, rather than define things simply as a set of properties, the properties are defined from the start as standing in a causal relation. So, causal relations are not inferred from empirical change, but have an ontological status equal to empirical features.

I do not believe this axiom to be adventurous. For example, in terms of thermodynamics, all things are in fact causally connected in the sense that even apparently isolated systems participate in cosmic dissipation. Bergson was right after all: everything does have a (thermodynamic) élan vitale ;-)

A thermodynamic axiom:

I further assume that the initial (inherited; historical) structures that can mediate the relation of a process and its (dissipative; positively entropic) environment constrain the probability distribution of its possible outcomes, and this _necessarily_ causes the process to be emergent (negentropic).

I find this reading of a "thermodynamic engine" to be very useful. It is borrowed from cosmology (explaination of how empirical qualities or structures arise). It explains why almost half of the processes we see are emergent rather than dissipative, why creativity (in the sense of improbable outcomes) is so embedded in natural processes, etc.

However, I've not been able to get any critical feedback from folks in physics about this. I think it receives some warrant from cosmology, where dissipation of the original Big Bang gives rise to structures (empirical qualities) rather than result from them. However, it seems the receiption originally given this idea was polite rather than either negative or positive, perhaps because it was a philosophical perspective more than scientifically operational. Hopefully I can get that criticism from this list. I also would appeal to scientific realism in this connection.

Implications for class:

I don't want to explore the implications here unless the proposition itself and its underlying axioms are accepted. However, these hints might help make them acceptable in that the proposition appears to be heuristic.

For example, one could represent a "relation of production" as referring to the causal relation in which people stand and that accounts for their development as members of a class.

Also, since empirical qualities define the probability distribution of possible outcomes, empirical distinctions within the working class do not stand in the way of class participation, but do determine how difficult it is for a person to participate.

Another example. The means of production, inherited from the past, constrain labor so that it gives rise to emergent value, offering a solution to the value problem in classical political economy. And, of course, the difference between this emergent value and the market value of labor (its costs of reproduction) offer the basis of economic exploitation.

Haines Brown