We have been looking at the causal relationships in the establishment and reproduction of social systems. We will turn next to the establishment of the formal ‘economy’ as we know it, as well as to the establishment of cities, property and structures of hierarchy/the State.
In adopting a cultural ecology perspective we can show how social systems endure through a successful, if often temporary, adaptation to the resource challenges they face. Clearly causality implies a determinism, an outcome of an objective reality. This kind of determinism is not a crude materialism, especially of the economist turn where all actions are traced to economic causes or ‘laws’. The very existence of the economic itself, of economic relations is an emergent phenomenon, emerging from the interaction and mutual determination of several social systems, of gifting, receiving, exchanging, producing, trading; each of these sub-systems coming about because of their ability to help create, sustain and manage a social surplus – a breathing space over and above raw subsistence and survival, a breathing space in which society can form, in which production is possible and travel and trade is practicable.
These mechanisms of causality are multiple and complex, which as Warren Weaver taught us makes systems hard to predict fully. Today we tend often to refer to complexity theory as a synonym for systems theory, the theory of complex relations. But by complex we do not mean random, chaotic or unknowable. A sub-system is a boundary between a system of regulation and control and the unregulated and uncontrollable beyond. Indeed all spatially bounded subsystems – which include all social systems – come about because of the need to define and control a locality within which knowledge and power are possible. A ‘here’ a home space and a ‘there’ an other-space beyond.
By systems materialism I mean an approach to studying the causality of social change which focuses on the physical aspects of the transformation and transportation of matter and the energy required to do so, as well as the reality of ideas on how to do so, as they are able to influence real physical events. A systems approach recognises the multiple and intersecting causalities, and the systems of feedback which exacerbate change or slow it. A systems approach also provides a conceptual approach which is applicable at all historical, and proto-historical, times; rather than an approach applicable only to modern capitalism then retrofitted, crudely, to other times and circumstances.
A systems approach is needed because reality is systemic. It is the way the world is. We can create a systems model as a reflection of reality, and that reflection is likely to be easiest to model for the simplest and most self contained aspects of reality. As Dominique Chu writes the radical openness of systems mean that any model we create will always be an approximation of where the boundaries of where a sub-system lie will will depend on the context of outside influences. Our models will be wrong but the act of model building can give us a greater understanding of reality. This approach is similar to Roy Bhaskars early ideas on Critical Realism, that reality has depth, and it is worth probing to discover it.
A systems materialism is also materialistic because its focus on ecology as ontology. There is not an infinite possible number of ideas that can be transformed into reality and where that reality sticks. Reality only sticks, ideas stick, when they can create sub-systems that reproduce in terms of there mechanisms for managing flows of energy, regulating their environment and securing an evolutionary trajectory.
Ideas not a mere cipher of matter. To be read off a material ‘base’. Ideas are structures of information, information on how to approach reality and how to approach other ideas. Different ideas will have different information content on how to shape reality, each with a different information productivity in terms of the efficiency of the use of energy and the processing of matter. Ideas co-evolve with the environment and other ideas. Succesful ideas are those that change the world.
In searching for a materialism that avoids the abyss of dualism we have to turn towards some of the ideas of Joseph Dietzgen – of his conception that thought is material, or as he put it “Nature comprises all” . “Our perceptive faculty is not a supernatural source of truth, but a mirror-like instrument, which reflects the things of the world, or nature” Thought and matter were no longer radically. Dietzen was a libertarian socialist thinker that sought to bridge the deepening gap between ‘anarchist’ and ‘socialist’ camps after the first international. His classic work is The Nature of Human Brain Work: An Introduction to Dialectics (1869). It was he and not Marx who invented the concept of ‘dailectical materialism’ and Marx was greatly influenced by his ideas. However as can be seen his concept of materialism was very different from that of Marx who characterised ideas as a surface effect, a superstructure, built on a material base. Dietzgen broke with this old fashioned kantian dualism. The world of reality is a never-ending, always changing set of observable phenomena, and it exists only as a united whole – nature.
Today we see Dietzgen only through second hand sources, though was was critical, but deeply influenced by him, and through Lenin who thought his ideas ‘obviously false’ . The kind of ideas that Dietzgen criticised were those of the vulgar materialists who believed there was a one way direction of causality from physics and chemistry to ideas and to political change’. Lenin was so fierce in his criticisms because it was precisely this kind of materialism he defended. Pannekoek criticised this kind of materialism as the ideology of a new working class, a party of technocrats that had adopted the ideology of shopfloor capitalism and scientific management.
We can reject this reductionist historical materialism- an artefact of enlightenment ideas of a prime mover, unidirectional causality as a substitute for God.
The limitations of a theory of history extended to be a theory of society and a theory of ideas was well known to Engels.
Engels for example wrote
‘while the material mode of existence is the primum agens this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect’ ( letter to Conrad Schmidt August 5, 1890
we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. ( letter to Franz Mehring dated 14 July 1893)
But what was the relationship between the primum agens and ‘secondary’ factors? How do ideas come about and influence social change. This gap in Marxian analysis led to various theories and ideas of social agency from Weber to Parsons. But the necessary corrective of focussing on choice and agency did and can lead to the neglect of structures and tendencies that bring about chance irrespective of the choice of the individual. Those features Adam Smith called ‘The Invisible Hand’.
Marx as a close reader of classical economics would have been closely influenced by the idea of the ‘long run’ – from Ricardo in particular. A tendency over a period of time for various economic laws to bring about an inevitable outcome, irrespective of short term fluctuations. There are many such dynamic tendencies in classical economics. Capital will flow from areas of high profit to low profit, from countries with low potential for profit to those with high. Processes with low profits will be abandoned, as will stocks and currencies if they offer poor returns.
This is often forgotten and ignored. Political economy appeared to show the primacy of economics in a fully monetary economy – capitalism – a society where everything could be bought and sole. If everything could be bought and sold then in the ‘long run’ economics appeared to explain everything of social significance.
If the economy and society – political economy – is seen from a systems perspective, and one where ideas shape reality through providing information and ideology to guide behaviour, we can formulate an approach to theory of historic change that can embrace, and manage, complexity. It can explain the link between the individual economic decision and change in whole economy through systems concepts such as homeostasis, systems of adjustments in crowds (we will explore this issue further later).
It can also make use of a broader range of tools than historical materialism available from systems thinking, of self-organisation, of telenomy, of emergence (we shall also go through these concepts shortly). These tools through adopting a systems approach can explain, as Marxian concepts cannot, of how social/economic systems are part of a wider ecosystem on which its fragily depends.
These tool are capable, in the way reductive historical materialism is not, of developing coherent theories where power, social control, ideology can be explained and seen to determine social systems, as it is the very creation of simple social sub-systems that makes control of that sub-system possible. For example it is hard to rule the world, but easier to control an isolated village of believers.
Once we have become used to throwing the causes of natural events and those of social changes into one tub, we are only too inclined to look for a fundamental first cause, which would in a measure embody the law of social gravitation, underlying all historical events. When once we have gone so far, it is easy to overlook all the other causes of social structures and the interactions resulting from them…
The will to power which always emanates from individuals or from small minorities in society is in fact a most important driving force in history. The extent of its influence has up to now been regarded far too little, although it has frequently been the determining factor in the shaping of the whole of economic and social life (Rudolf Rocker Nationalism and Culture 1937)
At this stage it is useful to examine Rudolf Rocker’s anarchist theory of history.
We do not deny that in history, also, there are inner connections which, even as in nature, can be traced to cause and effect. But in social events it is always a matter of a causality of human aims and ends, in nature always of a causality of physical necessity. …In the realm of physical events only the must counts. In the realm of belief there is only probability: It may be so, but it does not have to be so.
Every process which arises from our physical being and is related to it, is an event which lies outside of our volition. Every social process, however, arises from human intentions and human goal setting and occurs within the limits of our volition. Consequently, it is not subject to the concept of natural necessity….
We are with Rocker’s critique of historical materialism here, but with one critical provisio. ‘The realm of probability’ will create potentialities for social action, but only those ideas that can be enacted through a system of power will be enacted, and in the long run only those increase the survivability of social systems, through the evolution of increased economic efficiency, will survive to transmit those ideas.
Through understanding these systemic materialist connections we can avoid the new age missapplication of systems ideas, the trap that because everything connected to everything, we need explain the causes of nothing. Holism, and the relationship of the part to the whole is critical in systems thinking. These ideas were often glimpsed in partial form in earlier thinking before modern systems thinking developed, these ideas we tend to bundle under the term ‘dialectics’. Systems ideas enables us to strip away the metaphysical and idealistic crud of Hegalism that contaminated this brand.
Today we are at an end of an age of failed ideologies, of monopoly capitalism , state capitalism and marxism. As we said failed ideologies will struggle to survive and be transmitted if more robust ideas are developed.