From MARXISM-AND-SCIENCES@LISTSERV.CC.EMORY.EDU Sat Jan 6 12:21:13 2001
Class as process (Haines Brown's reply to Burford's intial comments)
By Haines Brown, 6 January 2001
Chris Burford was very kind to reply to my little proposition. I will try to respond to his comments.
> >I do not believe this axiom to be adventurous. For example, in terms
You hit upon a point that has in the past troubled me. That is, at a certain point in the evolution of the cosmos, its elements ceased being in thermodynamic communication. Nevertheless, the Second Law of Thermodynamics continues to prevail everywhere. If entropy refers to a relation, then the term seems to become meaningless for things in thermodynamic isolation. Nevertheless, in fact things still dissipate despite their isolation and so act _as if_ causally related, but in fact everything is not connected with everything else.
I don't want to derail the thread, but this has always puzzled me, and perhaps someone could help me out. My own simple-minded approach is pragmatic (realistic): a) in fact all isolated systems dissipate, so b) all things are essentially in motion _as if_ they were connected to something else. I suspect the answer is that there is an implied relation of an isolated sysem to the vacuum around it, but I'm no cosmologist by a long shot (the original cosmic singularity was highly improbable, but in relation to what? The perfect vacuum had virtual quantum fluctuation states in relation to which it was perhaps not improbable at all, and so improbability has something to do with persistence - improbable states are simply persistent states).
> I like the emphasis on emergent properties.
It sure could be added, and I would agree entirely that "self-sustaining" refers to a contradiction. However, I'm kind of a primitive ;-) I see "contradiction" in very simplistic terms as simply referring to two opposite processes, that of emergence and of dissipation - the opposite processes of a thermodynamic engine. That is why development counteracts the conditions that made it possible in the first place, why there is a unity and interdependence of opposites, etc. This reduction of classical Marxian contradiction to simply a thermodynamic engine is admittedly quite adventurous, and probably will give rise to howls of objection. However, arguably, it turns out to work quite well (I won't venture here to explain just what I mean by saying this, for that's an entire topic unto itself). However, I did not want to get (yet) into the more difficult subject of contradictions, and so my original proposition should be understood as simply referring to one part of it (even though in principle emergence and dissipation are mutually dependent and inseparable), possibly as a prelude to a discussion of contradiction.
> >I find this reading of a "thermodynamic engine" to be very useful. It
My understanding of cosmogenesis is that once structures exist, dissipation is constrained by them, which gives rise to new improbable structures and stretched time, which in turn further constrains dissipation, etc. What I did was to infer that this is really a dialectical process, the opposite sides of one coin, and the only rule that need apply is that the totality of dissipation must exceed the totality of emergence (because of the dissipation of the cosmos as a whole). Hence the "almost half." After all, when we speak of the cosmos today, we usually refer to improbable structures; when we look out the window, we see improbable structures. They emerged at some point, and we know they emerged thanks to dissipation constrained by history (by persisting structures). I see no reason to define "improbable" as referring to the rare accident, but merely to what is improbable in relation to an initial state. History is a necessary condition for creativity, but hardly creative itself.
> >why creativity (in the sense of
Here perhaps we have a sticking point, or maybe I just need to be clearer. Probability is always a relation, and so an outcome is probable or improbable in relation to a system's initial state. Positive entropy suggests an outcome that is more probable than an initial state (or, the past); negentry as an outcome less probable than that initial state. Yes, a probability distribution of outcomes is a continuum. However, the initial state offers a benchmark in that continuum that distinguishes an emergent and a dissipative process as ones that have a less probable outcome and a more probable outcome respectively.
Another possible source of confusion here may be that I did not sufficiently distinguish a probablility distribution of possible outcomes and the probability of an actual outcome in relation to an initial state.
> >the receiption originally given this idea was polite rather than
Yes. I was being charitable. I would actually be inclined to say that their empiricism is just bourgeois ideology, and their reticence was therefore due simply to the contradictions in their class outlook. Is empiricism not just private property carried to the philosophical level?
> >Another example. The means of production, inherited from the past,
Yes, very condensed! These terms have been much debated in recent decades, but I'm from an older school and ultimately left cold by the exploration. I'm working, probably despite your concerns, from a very "orthodox" position.
I'll provide a more extended version of this application of the proposition primarily to illustrate that the original proposition is quite heuristic. What follows will have some really problematic points, I know, but that is perhaps irrelevant in the present context. My aim is to clarify a bit, to address your concerns the best I can, but most importantly to demonstrate that the original proposition is heuristic.
I suggest that the "means of production" in traditional Marxism simply refers to the various emergent effects of past production upon nature and upon society. Raw materials and tools are examples of the former; technology of the latter. Although I may put it quaintly here, I suspect you will have no problem recognizing this definition to be quite conventional. Now, if we assume that structures arise from constrained dissipation, then means of production arise from past production's constraint upon natural dissipation. This is condensed, too, but I hope I put it clearly.
In this dialectic, these new structures, which I identify as means of production, come to constrain production in the present. However, so far the improbable result of production is only improbable in relation to world, not in relation to the initial state of the production process. Let me provide a simple example. If there were a fully automated shoe factory, it would produce shoes that are certainly improbable in relation to the world (one could never guess the existence of a "shoe" from one's knowledge of the extrasomatic world), but very probable in relation to the initial state of the production process (if you knew of all the raw materials, tools, and technology involved, you could exactly predict the shoes that come out).
Now things get a little complicated. Does this hypothetical automated shoe factory produce use values? Well, apparently it does, for I presume it produces shoes in the size I need and so I benefit from it. But there's a fly in this ointment. My need for shoes is much like that of people in the past, and so the factory is actually producing shoes to satisfy past needs (someone else's needs), which only happen to be the same as my current need. So, to make the example work better, I'd have to bring in style, assuming it to be an emergent need. So the factory fails to produce much use value because it produces shoes in a style no longer in fashion.
Looked at closely, the example suggests that behind the obscurity resulting from fixed (biological) needs, needs (even biological in the long run) are emergent, and so values acquired from the past (the structures I'm calling means of production) at least in principle can't address needs in the present by generating use values for the present. In practice old needs might to some extent, but that's only because some needs emerge very slowly or tend to persist.
What's missing is the guiding hand that causes production to realize the particular improbable outcome (current fashion) that addresses current needs and thus generates use value. What's missing is the effort to constrain output to meet current (emergent) human needs, and this is what essentially gives new (use) value to the product. This constraint upon production to ensure that it generates use value to address existing needs I call "labor." It's not a definition of labor that reduces to evidence of the sweat on one's brow - doing work. I'll let you decide if this is too far out, but that really belongs in a different thread.
I get into debates in a different context over the role of ideas in history, and I try to suggest there (contrary to the general assumption) that ideas themselves lack potency, but only constrain dissipation to yield improbable historical outcomes. So I'm suggesting that carrying out intentions in an historical action theory, represents a kind of labor, but that's so "off the wall" I'd better change the subject ;-)
Now, as for the value problem in classical political economy, Adam Smith in part inherited the Medieval labor theory of value, which is that humans are a chip off the old block - are quasi-divine, obtaining from god a creative capacity. Labor in the Medieval view of things means adding use value (beauty, utility, quality) to a product over and above its input costs. To charge more than the costs of production was in principle usury, but you could justifiably (socially sanctioned by guilds) add in a charge for your own creative contribution to the process (interesting that the Medieval labor theory of value appeared roughly at the same time as fully developed (pour soi) feudal social classes, and presupposed the discovery of individuality (at least two centuries before) as a condition of emergent value and hence surplus value. But I digress.
In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers tried to move away from the metaphysical element implied here, but it wasn't easy. In particular, Newton still was a mystic in that he held all things to have a mysterious "sympathy" for other things, a hidden inner engine of motion. Smith, his pupil (and fellow amateur astronomer) does not (as far as I know) persist in that view, although he still insisted that labor was somehow the source of new value like Newton's sympathies. But how did it work? Not being at all an expert on Smith, I'm not sure, but it seems off hand that he hid the problem and begged the question. He clearly recognized emergent system properties (self-serving individual action has an aggregate opposite effect - the wealth of nations). My guess is that he felt the value created by labor simply did not reduce to the costs of labor's own reproduction, which may be true, but fails to explain how. As thinking became more radically empiricist and reductionist in the course of the nineteenth century, Smith's belief that labor gives rise to value greater than its own costs of reproduction was rejected and replaced by marginalist nonesense which begs the question as well. Or at least this is my reading of what happened to the old labor theory of value. I was hinting that perhaps increased value is an emergent property resulting from production, which is a constraint upon natural dissipation.
> From a marxian point of view exchange value could be seen as an emergent
OK, things get even more complicated, which is why I meant the above merely to show that my original proposition was heuristic, which I hopefully have now demonstrated at some length (whether any of my comments are at all sound is another question). I can only say that I don't grasp how exchange value is emergent. In Capital, for example, didn't Marx continually insist that in principle all exchanges must be of equal (exchange, not use) values? But see below.
> >And, of
I don't know that we necessarily differ here, but I'm not sure I quite follow you. In simple terms, the capitalist enters the labor market and hires people to work for him. He pays fair market price for the labor, for all's fair in the (non-monopolistic) market, and this price is the costs of labor's reproduction, which the capitalist in effect rents on an hourly basis.
Now the product of the capitalist enterprise has embeded its costs of production, including the costs of labor input, but it also contains implicitly some added value created by labor, which is realized when the product is sold. The capitalist hires labor at its market value, but when he sells the product realizes the surplus value that labor injected into it and over which the worker can make no claim because he is a factor, but not a factory. I suggested the difference between the reproduction costs of labor and the value created by labor and realized in the sphere of exchange is the rate of exploitation. You seem to say the same thing, but merely shift the focus to the realization of that added value through exchange relations, rather than its origin in production. In context, I was more interested in the creation of that value than its realization. Or perhaps we do differ here, but I'd suggest pursuing it in a different thread, such "the value problem" or the "nonesense of world systems theory" ;-)
If new value creation is removed from the sphere of production, I worry that we end in a zero-sum game. After all, does not in principle all value ultimately arise from trashing our natural environment through the production process and thus through labor?
> Although I agree that emergent properties is a modern scientific idea that
Yup. However, you bring up, intentionally or not, a different question. That is, is there something in Marx that anticipates a theory of emergent properties? Or, is thermodynamics one way of seeing some material in Marx" Or is it a natural - perhaps inevitable - development of Marx's views? I tried to put forward my original proposition in a neutral way with respect to such issues.
I don't feel qualified to address these kinds of questions because it has been many decades since I've given Marx a close reading. However, this "theory of emergent properties," if we identity it with thermodynamics, tends to coincide with the later Marx, or perhaps Engels (the chronology is a bit foggy in my mind, to be honest). Particularly Engels tended to follow modern scientific advances closely, and it seems reasonable that some core notions of thermodynamics reached him. I see Marx as following a more complicated trajectory that probably has its roots in Hegel, and surely Hegel anticipates the idea of "emergent properites."
But for that matter, one can go back even further to 18th-century embryology, for here was the somewhat naturalistic version of the old Platonic notion that forms arise from hidden inner ideas. So I'm not sure "emergent properties" suffices as a critical concept, which is why I prefer to posit the question more narrowly in terms of thermodynamics specifically, which was blatantly naturalistic (although subject to plenty of metaphyical quandries, such as Maxwell's Demon). I suspect that the problem of emergent qualities was not really handled in a naturalistic way until post-WWII general systems theory (which undercut the old philosophical debate over parts and wholes - e.g., Oskar Lange), and its heirs (chaos theory, etc.)
I also would have no problem if someone were to argue that Marx anticipated general systems theory, but I'm not qualified to do that myself. And then one might also suggest that the real issue is the evolving ideology of the modern working class that naturally picks up on Marx, but necessarily goes beyond him, so that "marxism" becomes a moving target. But my brain is no longer up to scholastic debates, and so I don't worry as much about the extent to which thermodynamics (etc.) is true to Marx as I do whether it meets the needs of the modern working class.