Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ambiguities (1): "economic determinism"

C. Wright Mills' book was written fifty years ago but it's still worth reading now. In the intervening years the language with which modern society explains itself has undergone some changes. The rationale of economics is relatively more important; politics is now apparantly subordinate to economics rather than the other way round (imaginatively if not really). Ideology is more worked over and is more diffuse.

Nevertheless what Wright Mills calls "economic determinism" fairly characterises how many contemporary radical socialists* see the state functioning. Wright Mills aims to extend this notion:

"We do not accept as adequate the simple view that high economic men unilaterally make all decisions of national consequence. We hold that such a simple view of "economic determinism" must be elaborated by "political determinism" and "military determinism"; that the higher agents of each of these three domains now often have a noticeable degree of autonomy; and that only in the often intricate ways of coalition do they make up and carry through the most important decisions."

Evidently people have good reasons for ignoring the hegemonic language of economism ("it's a composite of lying sophistries" would be one) but this "economic determinism" is no such thing: it's not consistant with our current ideas of economics. It's assumed that there is one kind of mechanism of control that in the modern period is providentially taken over by the economic élite rather than an élite of a different sort. "Economic determinism" if it is to mean anything ought to be concerned with the determination of the channels of control and the technology of control with respect to tangential transactions carried out via a more or less open market. Hence one could talk about the economic determination of the comprador régime in Afghanistan etc.

*I dislike calling things "radical" but since the former socialist parties of Western Europe defected to neoliberalism all proponants of socialism are marginalised from mainstream politics, hence are, de facto, radical socialists. I will end this footnote without going over the ambiguities inherent in the terms "open market" and "mainstream politics".

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