Rethinking Socialism: Community, Democracy, and Social Agency

Antonio Callari & David F Ruccio. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 22, Issue 3. 2010.

In this essay, we lay out a principled/strategic way in which Marxian theory can contribute to the ongoing rethinking, in social theory, of the concepts of “community” and “democracy,” especially in relation to the question of “social agency.” If a Marxist contribution to this rethinking can serve to channel it onto the tracks of “socialist/communist” aspirations, however reformulated in light of current critical social theory, that would meet our goal. Our discussion is organized around a particular reading of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism and broadens the notions of “the social” and of “the economy” beyond the unidimensional concepts that have undergirded much of orthodox thinking, transforming them into spaces that are both multidimensional (consisting of plural agencies) and polymorphous (comprising plural forms of agency). The project of broadening the social space imagined in Marxist theory is, of course, not new with us: much of the work done after, or in response to, the more structuralist constructions of the Althusserian school can be understood, we think, as contributing to that project. This essay can be seen as following up on that work, and we offer our reflections as an attempt to find in Marx the theoretical conditions for it.

The need to focus on the question of “agency,” on the social identities that agents possess (or that are attributed to them) and the types of economic and political behavior associated with such identities, is both political and theoretical. Politically, this focus is made necessary not just by the desire to counter the hegemonic project of contemporary capitalism (so intent on negating those human needs that do not fit the cash nexus) but also by a desire to extract, and thus to preserve, the democratic and humane aspirations of the socialist tradition from the historical experiences of “really existing socialism.” The project of creating a space for economic and social forms beyond capitalism, and of conceiving of nontotalitarian and more open economic and political institutional forms of noncapitalism, can only proceed through elaborating a new vision of the relationships among the individual, community, and society. Theoretically, the development of a theory of social agency appropriate for articulating a new conception and practice of socialism would fill a vacuum created within Marxism by the widespread rejection of economic determinism. Our reflections are meant as a direct response to arguments, among many economists (both mainstream and heterodox), that forms of economy and society other than capitalism are no longer on the agenda (because the goal is to challenge and move beyond one particular form of capitalism, identified as neoliberalism), and, within the Left, that the discussion of noncapitalism has nothing more to learn from Marxism and something important to lose by a continued association with it (because of its essentialist, economic or class, formulations). We believe that Marxism—once freed from all its economistic and essentialist formulations—can continue to have a unique and enriching contribution to make to the discourse on noncapitalism, community, and democracy; indeed, we believe, that distancing anticapitalist discourses and political practices from Marxism actually impoverishes them.

Heterodox economics (as well as forms of critical thought in other disciplines) can be thought of as a big tent under which various distinct identities and issues congregate (allow us to call this congregation a “gathering of tribes”), united by a yearning for a more just social and economic order. Along with Marxian theory, then, critical social theory needs a theory of “the subject” not only because of the categorical sense of the worth of “personal space” that sustains every struggle of liberation, but also because of a practical problem of political organization. The ability to coalesce different groups and identities into a project that looks beyond capitalism—we prefer to continue to call it “socialism”—depends on a prior theoretical conception of a social space that recognizes the autonomous existence of these identities. Indeed, the need to reconceptualize “economy” and “society” as open spaces and to abandon the reduction of either to a structure, a unidimensional and homogeneous space of social activity, is being energetically pursued from various schools and in diverse ways: we need only think of the concerns of feminist scholarship or of the postcolonial critics of modernist “industrialization” projects or of the scholarship on the tense energies around the local/global fault line. The school of “postmodern Marxism” with which we have long been associated represents one such effort to reconceptualize economy and society as open spaces. Rejecting the modernist Marxist reduction of social processes and forms of consciousness to a uniform structure of economic relations, a postmodern approach to Marxist social theory can produce a decentered and materialist vision of community, including “personal space,” in its relation to a multidimensional social space. As we intend to argue, Marxist social theory emerges out of, and thus works to reaffirm, a space of democracy and community that works well with our critical energies.

Our Marxist vision involves both a reinscription of society as it is—the real, lived world around us—and an imagining of society as it could be—a project of envisioning an alternative way of organizing economic and social relations. It is therefore part of an unabashedly Marxian Utopian vision (yes, we do abandon Engels’s formulation, at least in its ad litteram mode), a vision from within a bourgeois social order of a noncapitalist space that looks beyond and exceeds such an order. In this sense, our approach is based on the idea that analyzing existing forms of society is inextricably related—as both condition and effect—to the imagining of other social relations, of another economic and social order.

Of course, the existence of a relationship between the analysis of society as it is and a vision of society as it could be is not only true of Marxism, in which a noncapitalist or socialist Utopian vision is a necessary ground for the critique of political economy; it is also true of other economic and social theories, both mainstream and heterodox. Each such theory or analytical framework presumes another possible world. In the case of mainstream economics, both neoclassical and Keynesian economists posit a vision of market equilibrium, productive efficiency, and the maximum growth of commodity wealth. The debates within mainstream economics (over the appropriate tools of economic analysis as well as the efficacy of various government policies) take place against the backdrop of such a vision: the general presumption is that a market economy, in principle, provides the means whereby individual agents can achieve maximum well-being, for themselves and for others. Questions are raised and disagreements arise not about the vision itself but, rather, on such issues as how and why the analysis is carried out (e.g., individual decisions or aggregate behaviors, partial or general equilibrium, game theory or econometric modeling, free decision-making or social engineering) and what the proper mix of markets and state intervention should be (e.g., should the state be charged with sanctioning private decisions or achieving macroeconomic targets, enforcing the rules or guiding the outcomes, closer to the protocols of the International Monetary Fund or to the World Bank?)—in other words, in how far the actual world approximates or departs from the Utopian vision of local and global markets shared by mainstream economists.

Heterodox economists, as befits their diversity, offer a wide variety of alternative visions: from stable forms of economic growth and more equitable distributions of income and wealth through structures of democratic participation in economic and political life and adequate social provisioning to collective or communal appropriation and distribution of the surplus. In some cases, the vision that informs heterodox economics departs only slightly from the mainstream one; the major difference lies in the extent to which actual market economies (governed by neoliberalism or the “Washington Consensus”) can be reshaped to provide the promised benefits. In other cases, the break is more radical; heterodox economists envision possible worlds—sets of economic and social institutions and agencies—that differ from and serve as alternatives to the Utopian vision of equilibrium, efficiency, and economic growth proffered by neoclassical and Keynesian economists.

In a general sense, then, what we want to suggest is that the future of critical social thinking—inside and outside economics—is dependent on recognizing and rearticulating its Utopian visions. Such visions play a key role in defining the distinctive character of not only the conclusions but also the methods and procedures (including the how and why) of economic and social theory. Even more important, that future depends on the extent to which heterodox Utopian visions, separately and together, effect (and continue to maintain and develop) a decisive rupture from the one currently articulated within mainstream (both liberal and conservative) economic and social theory. So, let us then get to the task of elaborating the vision of noncapitalism that inspires us Marxian economists, starting with the idea of commodity fetishism.

Commodity Fetishism in Modernist Marxism and the Unidimensional Space of Social Being

With the concept of commodity fetishism, Marx linked his analysis of market relations with a particular form of consciousness, which he summarized as the reification of social relations and the personification of things. Crucial to the phenomenon of commodity fetishism was the conception of a social distribution of labor according to the law of value. In a market system, since the regulation of production takes place through fluctuations in the prices of commodities that occur “independently of the will, foresight, and action of the producers,” Marx argued, “the relations [among producers] … appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things” (1967, 75, 73).

Now, in its construction of commodity fetishism, the economistic tradition of modernist Marxism went further than describing a connection between the structure of market relations and a certain form of consciousness. It posited, rather, a causal relationship between the two, placing the theory within the shell of the base/superstructure model and explaining the form of consciousness as the product, and inverted reflection, of the economic structure itself. This reflective theory of consciousness implied a theoretical conception of “the market” as a self-regulating mechanism, a structure capable of reproducing itself in accordance with a purely “economic” logic—the conception that Karl Polanyi so well captured with the expression “the self-regulating (and disembedded) market system.”

“Commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account. We must therefore have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners,” wrote Marx (1967, 84). For the economic determinist reading to conceive of these owners as having a form of consciousness that makes their behavior conform to the objective rules of commodity exchange, these rules must be thought of as being inscribed in a preexisting and independently defined economic structure. If there is no such structure, no self-regulating economy, there cannot be a reflective theory of consciousness. As is well known, the economic determinist reading of Marx has seen Capital as offering just such a conception of “the economy,” extending the law of value to capitalist relations and spinning out the logic of an inexorable process of capital accumulation and capitalist growth.

To pass to the history of Marxism and to questions of socialist strategy and practices, there is little question that certain problematic practices and identities have been affected (if not effected) by this economistic conception. If the reproduction of capitalism as such an independently constituted, centered, and unified economy could be described purely in terms of a calculus of labor values, then the dynamics of social change could also be analyzed, in principle, purely in terms of the forms of production, the kinds of labor, and class dynamics, with other social processes being viewed as incidental, secondary, or functionally dependent on the structure of the economy. Consequently, and reflectively, nonclass forms of consciousness and agency (and, for that matter, class forms other than those of capitalism) could also be symmetrically subsumed to capitalist class consciousnesses and agencies. It is because of this concept of the economy as a disembedded and self-regulating structure that economistic Marxism could sustain a unidimensional view of society, social agents, and social change.

But why did, and how could, this concept of “the economy” play such an important role within Marxism? In our view, the privileging of the economy is a bourgeois ideological operation, and modernist Marxism, perhaps inevitably influenced by bourgeois conceptions, imported this privileging operation into its own discourse. But, of course, this introduces the question of what the discursive condition(s) might have been that made it possible for this bourgeois dominance of the economy to be reproduced by the economic determinist tradition in Marxism. This condition, we want to argue, is/was an ontological concept of labor and, with it, a certain idealistic concept of humanity and a certain image of socialism—or, to be more precise, concepts of humanity and socialism that do/did not go beyond the limits of the bourgeois imagination of society as a projection of the bourgeois individual.

Let us see what this imagined socialist condition of humanity was and how it took shape. Marx’s own discussion of commodity fetishism in capitalism included a comparison of bourgeois relations with the relations of production to be found in “precapitalist” societies, such as those of “the European middle ages shrouded in darkness,” where the members of “the patriarchal … peasant family” labor “in common,” and those of an imagined “community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common.” In contrast to the case of bourgeois society, these noncapitalist productive arrangements are such that “the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor, appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labor” (Marx 1967, 77).

Marx’s reference to the “community of free individuals” came to embody the prototype of socialism in the constructions of classical Marxism. The common ownership of the means of production—“the property question,” in the words of the Communist Manifesto—was conceived as the institutional guarantee of a prohibition against forms of class exploitation, and all bonds of personal dependence and community came to be constructed as a consciously directed expenditure of labor power in the production of use-values. Contained in this vision of socialism is a concept of labor in general as the essence of human nature, the concept of homo faber.

In this conception of socialism, humanity is ontologically constituted as pure laboring activity, freed from all bonds of social dependence and limited only by nature. This view presented socialism as a solution to the problem of exploitation in both capitalist and other class forms of society. Moreover—and this is the key theoretical move—it also presented socialism as a solution to the problem of consciousness and did so symmetrically with respect to both commodity/capitalist forms of consciousness and other forms of consciousness, including ideas about forms of personal dependence and ideas about nature, characteristic of noncapitalist societies. In this socialism, not only reified consciousness but also all other forms of consciousness that can intervene in, or interfere with, the carrying out of the directed plan of social production had to vanish, to be replaced by a direct consciousness of intersubjectivity among producers. To the familiar condition of a withering away of the state, one might thus add as a condition of this ideal conception of socialism the withering away of all forms of consciousness other than that of the interdependence of agents constituted as producers, as laboring individuals.

There is a close relation between this particular concept of socialism and the economic determinist concept of “capitalism.” The two concepts mutually justify, support, and reflect each other. According to this conception, the space of social being is completely described by the changing forms of laboring activity, the network of relations between humanity in general and nature in general, and accordingly the concepts of capitalism and of socialism are deployed symmetrically on this space. If socialism is conceived as a unity of free producers—“an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels 1976, 506)—capitalism is conceived as a unity of (unfree) producers, and the concept of “the economy” as a self-regulating structure is the theoretical equivalent of this “unity,” leaving no room for forms of agency not functionally reducible to supports for this structure. (These two conceptions are also obviously related in a teleological conception of history, whereby capitalism appears as the last type of class society precisely because it breaks down all bonds of social dependence, replacing them with the single bond of economic dependence which, then, the institutions of socialism would remove. In this same scheme, the transition between capitalism and socialism is led by the exploited producers who, alone among social agents, are defined by the capitalist bond of economic dependence and are uniquely capable of seeing beyond it.)

In conclusion, the conception of socialism/communism as a condition of pure intersubjectivity among producers, with the planned (conscious) distribution of labor constituting completely and transparently the field of social relations, and the economistic construction of capitalism both are reflections of a uniform, unidimensional social space, with the ontology of homo faber at the basis of this space. The discussion of the relation between individuals and society here does not go beyond this unidimensional space of social being for either capitalism or socialism. Capitalism is posited as an economic structure in which there is a disjuncture between the individual and society, with the disjuncture being theoretically negotiated and overcome with the concept of commodity fetishism. On the other hand, the conscious direction of production in socialism/communism produces a direct union between the individual and society or, better, a total absorption of the private into the social, the public—guaranteed by the common ownership of the means of production which removed the economic, the only remaining, form of social dependence.

The Subjects of a Multidimensional Social Space

A strong argument can be made, however, that this unidimensional construction of social space is not essential to Marxism (or, for that matter, to other critical traditions inside and outside economics). Taken literally as a conception of society, the reference to a “community of free individuals” is an extreme idealism hard to reconcile with Marx’s materialist conception of social life. Contrary to the view implied by the simple base/superstructure model, Marx’s materialist conception was not about material production as such (whether defined in terms of labor or technology or both) but about the changing social boundaries of human activity, not reducible to individual intentions and forms of consciousness or fully grasped by theoretical constructions and teleological ends. Materiality refers not to the process of production as such (there are many idealist conceptions of production both inside and outside the Marxian tradition), but to the irreducible concreteness and historical/conjunctural specificity of all the forms of social being with which humans shape their existence: forms of consciousness and identity are material forces precisely to the extent that they arise “spontaneously” within an open social space and seize, by interpellating and actualizing, the agencies of individuals and groups.

Shortly after offering the example of a “community of free individuals,” Marx himself strongly linked the practice of reducing “individual private labor to the standard of homogeneous human labor” to the “cultus of abstract man” of “Christianity … especially in its bourgeois developments” (1967, 79). For Marx, then, abstract notions of humanity, especially in their economic manifestations of an abstract labor calculus, were expressions of the bourgeois form of consciousness that he had just described as commodity fetishism. It is difficult, then, to sustain that the Marxian conception of social life is inextricably connected to the idea of the “community of free individuals” based on the labor ontology of social being. It is more reasonable to consider the example of a community of free individuals as a rhetorical device used by Marx to illustrate, by way of contrast, the commodity fetishism of bourgeois society.

For Marx, in our view, the reduction of laboring activity to abstract quantities of labor is but an expression of a commodity/capitalist conception of social being not to be uniquely mapped onto the analysis of the existing social order or of the concept of socialism. The abstract notion of labor is Marx’s concept of how “bourgeois” culture and practices tend to shape the contours of social being for agents implicated in commodity exchanges, not an encompassing conception of the materiality of social being. If the concept of commodity fetishism embodies a critique of bourgeois forms of consciousness, it does so because it rejects the construction of social being along the lines of uniformity that subject human consciousness and forms of identity and agency to the needs of commodity exchange.

All this of course implies that Marx could not have derived the commodity fetishistic form of consciousness and social being from a pregiven economic structure. Rather, the construction of the reified form of consciousness characteristic of commodity society must be conceived as the overdetermined, and hence historically specific and conjunctural, outcome of certain cultural, political, and economic processes. Jack Amariglio and Callari (1993) show that the need for the reification of social relations and commodity relations must be explained by the intersection of economic processes with, inter alia, autonomously existing identities of rationality, equality, private proprietorship, and objectification. Far from resting on the presumption of the economy as a self-regulating structure, then, both the Communist Manifesto and Capital can be read as texts that offer a critical analysis of the uniformity of social life that the rule of commodities and capital presumes and attempts to construct and impose hegemonically. They comprise, in short, a critique of the emergent and expansive but always incomplete bourgeois project.

Marx’s analysis does not presume that capital or the working class exists as a given, or that these two forms of agency exhaust the field of social being/relations. The commodity form and capitalist class relations implicate agents in reified relations, but they do not exclude either the existence of other, independent forms of social agency or the possession of forms of consciousness other than the commodity and capitalist class forms even by those who are implicated in the network of capitalist commodity relations. In fact, nothing logically precludes the intersection of nonlabor forms of consciousness and social being in the very acts of commodity exchange and production; the intersection of social identities such as those of race, gender, and sexuality with the otherwise homogeneous space of commodity values can, and often does, produce particular agents of commodity exchange as well as discriminatory practices. Thus, while it seems that Marx did conceive of the space of commodity relations and of capital accumulation as homogeneous and unidimensional qua products of bourgeois hegemony, this conception cannot be extended to the totality of the social space; there is no necessity for the production of all use-values to consist of the production of commodities, whether capitalist or noncapitalist (ancient, slave, communal, and so on), and social agents will always already be implicated in activities other than labor and production. The assignation of a reified form of consciousness to agents implicated in commodity relations does not imply either the absence of other forms of consciousness held by these agents or the nonparticipation of these agents in processes other than commodity processes or, for that matter, the subordination of noncommodity/noncapitalist forms of consciousness and activity to those of capitalist commodity production. In principle, then, not only the social space as a whole but individual agents can be—and, in our view, must be—conceived multidimensionally.

The statement by Marx (1967, 10) that he treated individuals “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests” has been used to argue that Marxian theory leaves no room for a nonreductionist conception of social agents/individuals/persons. That argument would be tenable if indeed Marxist theory had to treat the uniform space of commodity relations as exhaustive of the field of social relations. But, as we have seen, the reading of Marx proposed here is far from positing a uniform social space or ontology. The traditional argument thus can be reversed, and Marx’s refusal to cast his discourse in terms of individuals, his choice of focusing on processes and structures, can be read as an index of the fact that he refused to reduce concrete individuals to the unidimensional space of commodity and class relations.

Social being in Marxian theory can then be conceived as ontologically multidimensional. Capitalism can be constructed not as an immanent or universal structure but as the hegemonic imposition of bourgeois forms of calculation on the set of economic activities constructed by private property relations. The Marxian labor theory of value is thus a way of both encapsulating and criticizing those forms of commodity calculation, not a more or less accurate representation of the forms of labor and production that may obtain at any point in time within the system of commodity relations—and certainly not an assertion of any ontological reduction of material relations to calculations of labor times.

The next step involves answering the following questions: What conception of socialism can we develop on the basis of this multidimensional ontology of social being and multidimensional social space? If a problem of capitalism—and we believe that this is a problem inextricably connected to the capitalist form of class r elations—is the bourgeois construction of the social as a unidimensional space, then how can socialism be conceived so as to represent a solution to this problem?

Toward a Different Conception of Socialism

The foregoing discussion suggests a conception of socialism significantly different from the “community of free producers” mapped onto a unidimensional field of transparent production relations and unadulterated by other forms of agency and consciousness. Rather, a Marxian conception of socialism must be elaborated in the multidimensional space of many forms of consciousness, many forms of agency, and many forms of labor and productive activity, not reducible to the privileged logic of a homogeneous calculus (of commodities/things or of labor). In opposition to the notion of a withering away of nonproduction forms of social agency, a socialist economy will have to remain embedded in many concrete, historically specific forms of agency. A socialist structure of production constructed on a multidimensional social space would thus be rich with a variety of forms of agency and consciousness, and a variety of institutional forms to accommodate these different forms. This would distinguish it from the “one model” type of socialism that we have come to know (and reject) and would support the concept of different roads to socialism and, therefore, different socialisms. This social structure of production would be socialist partially to the extent that it would not require producers to filter their identities through some abstractly determined homogeneity imposed on the space of economic calculations and to have their social status fixed in the myth of a necessary (not political/ethical/historical) form of rationality. (Our theoretical prejudice suggests, in any case, that behind this myth there will always be some particular interest, some violent erasure of identities.) This socialist structure of production would not require the absorption of particular forms of consciousness and of associated needs into a uniform larger social logic, and hence their marginalization or dismissal on those grounds.

The traditional concept of socialism saw in the common/public/state ownership of the means of production a principal guarantee of a communal class structure and of the conscious direction of production to the satisfaction of social needs (whether defined in terms of consumption or accumulation). Because it reduced the question of the relation between public and private to the one question of the immediate conditions under which labor is performed, this conception proposed that the disjuncture between public and private—which indeed is effected by private property in capitalism, but only partially so—would be totally removed by the simple abolition of private property and the instauration of public ownership. The uniformity/unidimensionality of the social space left no room for a conception of “the particular” and of an institutional sphere in which the intersection of one set of productive activities and other forms of agency and consciousness could be negotiated in a number of different ways, each being particular to the form of consciousness and/or agency in question.

The projection of socialism onto a uniform social space made it possible for this socialism to reject the bourgeois form of “the private,” one kind of particular, but did not allow the existence of other forms of the particular or private or personal. This is at the basis of the view that socialism/communism constructs society—economically, culturally, and politically—in a totalitarian way. It also goes some way toward explaining the great emphasis that the (efficient) production of “goods” came to acquire in official ideological pronouncements of “really existing socialism” and the consequent near total collapse of that camp: the definition of the socialist/communist project in terms of a uniform field of laboring activity left no concrete tasks to be accomplished other than the manifestation of laboring activity in general as a mass of use-values. Ironically, it may have been the very projection of socialism onto the unidimensional social space of labor that, by failing to foster a sustained search for ways of negotiating the intersection of one set of productive activities with varied forms of subjectivity (both inside and outside production), contributed to the failure of this socialism to compete successfully with the imaginary associated with capitalist forms of production.

Of course, the idea of a “communal” direction of production, especially in its class dimensions (such that the collectivity of direct producers is not excluded from the appropriation and distribution of surplus labor), and of the conscious direction of production to the satisfaction of social needs (both needs that were unmet under capitalism and new needs that would emerge within socialism), remain central to a conception of socialism. These require the development of institutions and forms of property that can negotiate the intersection of production/distribution with varied forms of subjectivity. The public ownership of the means of production, if mapped onto a multidimensional space, does not in itself preclude the existence of a sphere of the private or the development of institutional forms through which to negotiate the intersection of private and public. Other forms of property, including personal and community (although not necessarily private) possession of or control over resources, are not incompatible with the socialist control of production, although it is clear that uses of property for purposes of exploitation, in the traditional sense of the exclusionary appropriation and distribution of surplus labor (in capitalist and other forms), would not be contained within the acceptable set of practices.

Severing the connection between socialism and economistic conceptions of social agencies and identities also leads to a reinterpretation of communal control and of the notion of community itself. Instead of thinking community in the idealistic terms of a “common being,” the expression of a common agency grounded in a unidimensional social space, to which all other consciousnesses are necessarily subordinated or from which they are excluded, it is now possible to reinscribe community as a “being in common.” The latter notion serves to distance the idea of community from the homogenizing conception of human beings as producers, as a laboring multitude. Instead, community can be conceived in multiplicity and difference, negotiated and constructed in and through diverse subjectivities, in an open social space. This is the foundation of a sense of community, a “community without unity” (Corlett 1989) or a “community at loose ends” (Miami Theory Collective 1991), that can thrive on and even cultivate—rather than attempt to regulate, control, and even marginalize or eliminate—different agencies and identities. Such a notion of community is not dictated, whether by capital or noncapital. It is not given in an ontology of labor or production or the expression of a fundamental desire to be in common. Instead, as we understand it, it is the changing condition and result of particular projects of transformation, a coming together as a collective for the purpose of living in and changing the world.

We are not in a position here to speculate on the specific institutional arrangements that would give body to such socialist forms of production or forms of community. The role of firms, cooperatives (both of producers and of consumers), financial institutions, markets, planning organs, and so on would have to be rethought through the concepts of a multidimensional social space and of an emergent “subjectivity collective,” for concrete places and times. So, while it is impossible to say what this will mean specifically, now or in the future, in the United States or elsewhere, this rethinking would have to take us beyond merely imagining some “controls” being imposed on some key sectors of a bourgeois economy, such as the labor, money, and capital markets (e.g., Davidson 1994; Stiglitz 2002) . The imposition of such controls, in our view, would not get us beyond the hegemonic (of the type that is culturally accepted and powerful, not crass and easily removable) bourgeois construction of the social space where private property rules and where “controls,” though their goal may be to protect some individuals or groups, are more likely to be seen in their function as “limitations” upon a fundamental right than in their function as “facilitators” of a just society.

Socialism and Democracy

Much has been written of late about the need to make the project of socialism congruent with a commitment to democracy. The desire for democracy reflects a reaction against the totalizing effects of the unidimensional social space that economic determinist Marxism constructed theoretically and to some degree effected in the practices of the Stalinist model. The desire for democracy, as we see it, is the political counterpart of the theoretical project of constructing society as an open space rather than a given, uniform structure. As such, it is fully compatible with the multidimensional social space that we have argued is implicit in Marx’s critical analysis of commodity fetishism as a particularly bourgeois form of consciousness.

The conception of society as a multidimensional space, the existence of many forms of agency and identities, implies the presence of differences, tensions, and conflicts that need to be resolved. As we have argued above, the productive network, rather than being conceived as a dispersal of functions over a unidimensional social space, would have to be constructed as a number of negotiated intersections between various kinds of productive activities and varied forms of agency and consciousness. The concept of democracy provides a paradigm for the construction of political structures adequate to the project of negotiating a socialist structure of production over the differentiated terrain of many forms of agency—that is, the creation of a communist hegemony.

Clearly, in this conception, democracy denotes a political space different from that characteristic of economistic, unidimensional constructions of socialism. Interpreting democracy as a concept of a “self-governing community,” and interpreting socialism as a community of producers of transparent social relations, economistic constructions equated democracy with socialism itself: as a community of producers who consciously directed their social existence, the socialist social space was interpreted as democratic by definition. It is on these grounds that the argument could be made that the relations between citizens and the state were direct and unmediated by such mechanisms and institutions as political parties and social movements. Since the only space on which “difference” can be conceived in economistic constructions is the homogeneous space of labor, and since the only type of social difference conceivable on this space is a class difference, those who worked with this conception could, as a matter of principle, see in the existence of different organs of political organizations (e.g., parties and movements) only a projection of the existence of class relations (Hindess 1991). If, however, the political space of a socialist society is conceived as mapped onto a space of different forms of agency and consciousness, then it is necessary to conceive of this political space as embodied in institutions and practices that can, to repeat a term we have used throughout, negotiate these differences, and these institutions can include, although they would not be limited to, political parties.

But, of course, the concept of democracy appropriate to our reconstruction of socialism is also different from the bourgeois concept of democracy, and certainly from the classic bourgeois concept of democracy as a form of political organization for a mass of disconnected, atomistic individuals. This concept of democracy is little different from the economistic concept in that it also is predicated on a uniform social space, that of the individuals of bourgeois society who, though they may have different preferences and interests, are all reducible to a common model of self-interested rationality. The preconception of a homogeneous social space that characterizes economistic constructions of socialism also characterizes this “liberal” bourgeois conception of democracy.

The concept of democracy deployed here is different from both types of economistic constructions, bourgeois and traditional socialist, in that it presumes not a homogeneous social space but a heterogeneous one, not a field of similar forms of consciousness and agency but a field of difference. In doing this, we are proposing an etymologically defensible, and perhaps preferable, reconstruction of democracy. The traditional definition of democracy is “government by the people.” The etymology of the word, however, makes possible a significantly different construction: democracy from (“da” = division/difference) + (“mod” = council/assembly/conversation) + (“kar” = strength/power/leadership). Democracy can be constructed here as “an assembly of those who are different for the purposes of rule or leadership.” The virtue of this definition, which is fully compatible with the vision of socialism and community we have proposed, is that it does not slip into any assumptions about a uniform social space, which leaves us with the unhappy choice of either capitalism or the economistically constructed form of socialism.

This particular concept of democracy, however, has certain implications for how we understand the process of social change. As we have seen, both the bourgeois concept of democracy and the economic determinist construction of the immediacy of representation in the socialist community of free producers rest on the positing of different individuals and forms of agency upon a uniform social space. Democratic interaction, posited upon this space, can only appear as a matter of discussions among individuals who, so to speak, converse in the same language, have the same form of consciousness, though different individuals exhibit proficiency and expertise to different degrees. (Those who have found themselves exhibiting forms of consciousness significantly different from the ones assumed to predominate have, consequentially, found themselves marginalized—though by very different means—in both capitalist and “really existing” socialist societies.) The democratic process has hence appeared as simply a process of discussion, a political marketplace of ideas.

The concept of democracy proposed here, however, is different in its assumption of difference rather than uniformity at the level of consciousness and identity. This means that the democratic process must be conceptualized not as a discussion within one language, but as a process of attempted translations between languages, cultural identities, forms of consciousness, social activities and locations, and so on. This conception of the democratic process is, in fact, better understood as a conception of the political process, where the word political carries the connotation of a process not amenable to representation or regulation as are other social processes predicated on uniform types of rationality (e.g., the economic process in bourgeois society). Rather, this notion of socialist democracy speaks to a practice of coalescing heterogeneous forms of agency into concrete and particular (and thus ever-changing) collective subjectivities—society being thus a collection of “subjectivity collectives.”

Marxism, the Common, and the Future of Critical Social Theory

Much of what we have said here about economy and society as open spaces, about the social space and forms of community as multidimensional and dispersed, could easily have been said by others working (or claiming to work) outside the Marxian tradition (or claiming to have abandoned Marxism). Indeed, we would claim (but don’t in this essay have the space to articulate in any detail) that the multiple traditions of heterodox economic and social thought—from radical and feminist to postcolonial, post-Marxist, and beyond—are defined, at least in part, by the extent to which their key concepts challenge the closed, homogeneous space of economy and society presumed and articulated by bourgeois economic and social thought. And contemporary developments within Marxian theory owe much to contributions made by these traditions.

The question is: if what was said here could be said without Marxism, then what is it that Marxism adds? What Marxism provides, and what no other form of contemporary social theory with which we are acquainted can provide, are two things: First, a theory of class without which, in fact, the concepts of socialism and communism make little sense. We have not developed this particular aspect in our essay. But second, Marxism also provides a concept of the homogenizing effects of commodity relations on the social space and therefore a way of criticizing the fetishism embedded in the bourgeois concept of economic rationality. Marxism is a theoretical approach that heterodox economists (and, more generally, anticapitalist thinkers and activists) can use to understand both the effects of class relations and to be on guard against the forces that make for the cultural hegemony of bourgeois forms of rationality.

These, then, are Marxism’s two main contributions to rethinking the common: an ongoing critique of political economy, in the form of a vision that allows us to see beyond the hegemony of capitalism and bourgeois economic discourse, and a reminder that a real future for a democratic communism can only come about as the result of a decisive break from the vision that is proffered by all forms of economistic thought.