Capitalist Ideology and Historical Materialism (2011)

Written in the summer of 2011, informed by a close reading of Plekhanov, Labriola and other classical Marxists

The social conditions of capitalist society make up the experience of members of that society. These experiences – of capitalist economic relationships, social hierarchies and cultural institutions – become crystallized in abstract concepts.

The social conditions of capitalism are imagined to be the outcome of “human nature” or “human psychology.” “Human nature” is itself an idealization of the “norms” of social conditions under capitalism. The idea of “human nature” is a fixed abstraction which means that it remains the same when applied (as a concept) across time and in different environments. History is converted by idealism into expressions of “human nature” against different backdrops.

These abstractions serve as idealizations and, ultimately, justifications of social activity under capitalism. Because capitalism is a class society the social activity of the ruling class and its relationship to the greater population is also idealized. Idealism consequently is a bridge to capitalist activity by providing ideal concepts, categories or factors which are held by idealism to be identical to corresponding capitalist relationships, hierarchies or institutions.

For instance: “democracy” is equal to certain institutions – ballots, parliaments, multiple parties, within which as they really exist are contained the complete social primacy of the capitalist class – the million dollar campaign and candidate, the monopoly of two or three parties catering to sections of finance or industry; the coincidence of all functions and staffing of government with lobbyists; first of all the entirely unrepresentative result of very occasional and limited ballots promoting inevitable candidates. Nevertheless, in capitalist society, this activity is equal to the concept of “democracy.”

The actual phenomena of nature do not exist in fixed, universal forms which are always identical with such abstract concepts. To understand social phenomena it is necessary to contextualize them by examining the whole course and interrelations of their historical development which are the true content of those phenomena. Historical Idealism will insist that a social phenomenon – which it will immediately categorize under an abstract heading – is the product of a “historical factor” or “psychological factor” which itself is the product of a side of “human nature.”

Historical Materialism examines social phenomena from the standpoint of the conditions within which humanity and human society develop. Out of the conflicts which attended the fundamental questions of distributing and controlling the means of producing both humanity’s subsistence and surplus emerged forms of social organization, hierarchy, property forms and cultural systems. Social classes represent the most fundamental divisions in society and consequently the material contradiction between classes is at the root of social forms and their development. To the study of society the contradiction between classes has the same essential relation as natural selection has to the study of biology.

Social antagonisms are the true framework of any social concept’s theoretical development and the basis for its present or past intellectual employment. The pressure for certain social activity is idealized and embedded in the social concepts of capitalist idealism. The fixed generalized form of idealist concepts is a reflection of their function. An idealist concept must subordinate, bridge and override real consciousness of objective social and historical processes to protect and reconcile the subjective social needs for a certain social activity (i.e. imperialism, class dictatorship, inequality).

This is why an objectively inadequate fixed generalization can be understood as equal (identical) to more dynamic phenomena which are placed under the concept’s heading. The idealist concept then – in reaction to the dynamic interrelations and contradictions of developing reality – works not towards approximating this dynamism in humanity’s consciousness of nature but suppressing it. The reason for this is that the objective relations of nature contain contradictions which undermine and refute social activities under the present social system.

At its roots, idealism is based on the most basic attempts of humanity to cope with the bewildering experience of nature. Suppressing and overriding the dynamism of objective phenomena is a natural human attempt to form ideological estimations of nature that are consistent and which reconcile experience with subjective needs and practice. In class society, class interests become expressed in society’s treatment of social phenomena both in the intuitive thought of individuals and in the entire course of development and perpetuation of society’s cultural and philosophical heritage.

The usefulness of a concept depends on the contingency and limitations a concept expresses, on one hand, and how thoroughly defined its material origins and interrelations are, on the other (i.e. concreteness is a totality). Within certain contexts and relationships the concept will hold true – in certain contexts the concept will be decidedly false. The concepts of capitalist ideology are instead rooted in immutable “human nature,” and are applied to phenomena based on surface features corresponding to a preconceived stereotype, with moral and practical conclusions already attached. Consequently, based on the relative similarity of purely external and superficial characteristics — pertaining to phenomena with distinct historical and social origins — the idealist will claim that such phenomena are in fact identical. Any wider context is entirely discounted.

The ultimate result of such an approach is to subordinate conceptualization of phenomena to the introduction of “facts” in capitalist society by the capitalist press, for instance, or others who can present a sequence of events in a way which conforms with a certain stereotype and its moral imperatives. One third world country suppressing its citizens can be left in the dark, while sensationalized headlines and breathless articles can be employed aggressively against another third world country, less fortunate.

The historical and material background which would inform individuals on why one nation is selected for intervention and another is not, are lost. All that is known is that abstract murder (as superficial and isolated fact) is committed by an abstract murdering dictatorship (which has its origins in the defective side of human nature), and that such a thing necessitates an abstract humanitarian intervention. By focusing on the superficial and the psychological a wide and well-laid avenue is paved for imperialism.


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