Economics and Liberating Theory
Economics and Liberating Theory
Unlike mainstream economists, political economists have always tried to situate the study of economics within the broader project of understanding how society functions. However, during the second half of the twentieth century dissatisfaction with the traditional political economy theory of social change known as historical materialism increased to the point where many modern political economists and social activists no longer espouse it, and most who still call themselves historical materialists have modified their theory considerably to accommodate insights about the importance of gender relations, race relations, and the “human factor” in understanding social stability and social change. The liberating theory presented briefly in this chapter attempts to transcend historical materialism without throwing out the baby with the bath water. It incorporates insights from feminism, national liberation and antiracist movements, and anarchism, as well as from mainstream psychology, sociology, and evolutionary biology where useful. Liberating theory attempts to understand the relationships between economic, political, kinship and cultural activities, and the forces behind social stability and social change, in a way that neither over nor underestimates the importance of economic dynamics, and neither over nor underestimates the importance of human agency compared to social forces.
PEOPLE AND SOCIETY
People usually define and fulfill their needs and desires in cooperation with others – which makes us a social species. Because each of us assesses our options and chooses from among them based on our evaluation of their consequences we are also a self-conscious species. Finally, in seeking to meet the needs we identify today, we choose to act in ways that sometimes change our human characteristics, and thereby change our needs and preferences tomorrow. In this sense people are self-creative.
Throughout history people have created social institutions to help meet their most urgent needs and desires. To satisfy our economic needs we have tried a variety of arrangements – feudalism, capitalism, and centrally planned “socialism” to name a few – that assign duties and rewards among economic participants in different ways. But we have also created different kinds of kinship relations through which people seek to satisfy sexual needs and accomplish child rearing goals, as well as different religious, community, and political organizations and institutions for meeting cultural needs and achieving political goals. Of course the particular social arrangements in different spheres of social life, and the relations among them, vary from society to society. But what is common to all human societies is the elaboration of social relationships for the joint identification and pursuit of individual need fulfillment.
To develop a theory that expresses this view of humans – as a self conscious, self-creative, social species – and this view of society – as a web of interconnected spheres of social life – we first concentrate on concepts helpful for thinking about people, or the human center; next on concepts that help us understand social institutions, or the institutional boundary within which individuals function; and finally on the relationship between the human center and institutional boundary, and the possible relations between four spheres of social life.
THE HUMAN CENTER
Except for creationists most consider the laws of evolution straightforward and non-controversial. Unfortunately popular interpretations that emphasize the advantages of aggression and strength, but neglect equally important factors for passing on one’s genes like good parenting skills and successful cooperation, sprinkle more ideology over the scientific basis of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology than most realize.
The laws of evolution reconsidered
Human nature as it now exists was formed in accord with the laws of evolution under conditions pertaining well before recorded human history. Fossils discovered in Ethiopia and Kenya now date human ancestors back at least 5 or 6 million years. Distinctly human species arose in Africa at least 2 million years ago, while present evidence indicates that modern humans are only about 100,000 years old. Therefore the conditions relevant to which genetic mutations were advantageous and which were not are the conditions prevailing in central Africa between 6 million and 100,000 years ago. It is often noted that the last 10,000 years of human history – so called “historic time,” the time period we know much about – has been fraught with war, conquest, genocide, and slavery. And it is often speculated that under those conditions people with a genetic disposition to aggression and vengeance, for example, might have been well suited to survival. But historic time is only a tenth of the time modern humans have roamed the earth, and is only an evolutionary instant compared to the 6 million years during which the human species evolved from our common ancestry with apes and chimpanzees. This means it is impossible for the historical conditions we know something about to have selected genetic characteristics significantly different from those humans already had 100,000 years ago. Therefore, it is not possible that the human history we know something about – our history of war, oppression, and exploitation – has made our genetic “nature” hopelessly aggressive, vindictive, or power hungry. Throughout the 10,000 years of recorded history we have been, and remain, genetically what we were at the outset. To believe otherwise is to believe that a baby plucked from the arms of its mother, moments after birth, 10,000 years ago, and time-traveled to the present would be genetically different from babies born today. And this is simply not the case.
But what is the relevance of this to perceptions about “human nature?” The point is that whether conditions during the past 10,000 years favored survival of the more aggressive and vindictive, or survival of those who cooperated more successfully, is irrelevant to what “human nature” is really like. Because the conditions during known history played no role in forging our genetic nature. The relevant conditions for speculations concerning genetic traits promoting survival were the conditions that prevailed in Africa 6 million to 100,000 years ago. And whether or not the conditions human ancestors lived in during that lengthy period favored genetic traits conducive to aggression any more than traits conducive to successful cooperation, is very much an open question.
This does not mean that our 10,000-year history of war, oppression, and exploitation has had no impact on people’s attitudes and behavior today. These aspects of our history have had important effects on our consciousness, culture, and social institutions that cannot be ignored or “willed away .” But the point is that known history has left ideological and institutional residues, not genetic residues. Only conditions in Africa 6 million years ago had any influence on genetic selection. So it is perfectly possible that under institutional conditions that are very different from those we have today, and the different expectations that go with them, that human behavior – the combined product of our genetic inheritance and our institutional environment – could be quite different than it is presently. This simple fact is something apologists for capitalism ignore when they argue that people are doomed to the economics of competition and greed by “human nature.” Instead it is just as plausible that an economics of equitable cooperation is compatible with our genetic make-up, and perfectly possible under different institutional conditions – popular opinion to the contrary, not withstanding.
Natural, species, and derived needs and potentials
All people, simply by virtue of being human, have certain needs, capacities, and powers. Some of these, like the needs for food and sex, or the capacities to eat and copulate, we share with other living creatures. These are our natural needs and potentials. Others, however, such as the needs for knowledge, creative activity, and love, and the powers to conceptualize, plan ahead, evaluate alternatives, and experience complex emotions, are more distinctly human. These are our species needs and potentials. Finally, most of our needs and powers, like the desire for a particular singer’s recordings, or the need to share feelings with a particular loved one, or the ability to play a guitar or repair a roof, we develop over the course of our lives. These are our derived needs and potentials.
In short, every person has natural attributes similar to those of other animals, and species characteristics shared only with other humans – both of which can be thought of as genetically “wired in.” Based on these genetic potentials people develop more specific derived needs and capacities as a result of their particular life experiences. While our natural and species needs and powers are the results of past human evolution and are not subject to modification by individual or social activity, our derived needs and powers are subject to modification by individual activity and are very dependent on our social environment – as explained below. Since a few species needs and powers are especially critical to understanding how humans and human societies work, I discuss them before explaining how derived needs and powers develop.
Human beings have intellectual tools that permit them to understand and situate themselves in their surroundings. This is not to say that everyone accurately understands the world and her position in it. No doubt, most of us deceive ourselves greatly much of the time! But an incessant striving to develop some interpretation of our relationship with our surroundings is a characteristic of normally functioning human beings. We commonly call the need and ability to do this consciousness, a trait that makes human systems much more complicated than non-human systems. It is consciousness that allows humans to be self-creative – to select our activities in light of their preconceived effects on our surroundings and ourselves. One effect our activities have is to fulfill our present needs and desires, more or less fully. But another effect of our activities is to reinforce or transform our derived characteristics, and thereby the needs and capacities that depend on them. Our ability to analyze, evaluate, and take the human development effects of our choices into account is why humans are the “subjects” as well as the “objects” of our histories.
The human capacity to act purposefully implies the need to exercise that capacity. Not only can we analyze and evaluate the effects of our actions, we need to exercise choice over alternatives, and we therefore need to be in positions to do so. While some call this the “need for freedom,” it bears pointing out that the human “need for freedom” goes beyond that of many animal species. There are animals that cannot be domesticated or will not reproduce in captivity, thereby exhibiting an innate “need for freedom.” But the human need to employ our powers of consciousness requires freedom beyond the “physical freedom” some animal species require as well. People require freedom to choose and direct their own activities in accord with their understanding and evaluation of the effects of that activity. In chapter 2 I will define the concept “self-management” to express this peculiarly human species need in a way that subsumes the better known concept “individual freedom” as a special case.
Human beings are a social species in a number of important ways. First, the vast majority of our needs and potentials can only be satisfied and developed in conjunction with others. Needs for sexual and emotional gratification can only be pursued in relations with others. Intellectual and communicative potentials can only be developed in relations with others. Needs for camaraderie, community, and social esteem can only be satisfied in relation with others.
Second, needs and potentials that might, conceivably, be pursued independently, seldom are. For example, people could try to satisfy their economic needs self-sufficiently, but we seldom have done so since establishing social relationships that define and mediate divisions of duties and rewards has always proved so much more efficient. And the same holds true for spiritual, cultural, and most other needs. Even when desires might be pursued individually, people have generally found it more fruitful to pursue them jointly.
Third, human consciousness contributes a special character to our sociability. There are other animal species which are social in the sense that many of their needs can only be satisfied with others. But humans have the ability to understand and plan their activity, and since we recognize this ability in others we logically hold them accountable for their choices, and expect them to do likewise. Peter Marin expressed this aspect of the human condition eloquently in an essay titled “The Human Harvest” published in Mother Jones (December, 1976: 38).
Kant called the realm of connection the kingdom of ends. Erich Gutkind’s name for it was the absolute collective. My own term for the same thing is the human harvest – by which I mean the webs of connection in which all human goods are clearly the results of a collective labor that morally binds us irrevocably to distant others. Even the words we use, the gestures we make, and the ideas we have, come to us already worn smooth by the labor of others, and they confer upon us an immense debt we do not fully acknowledge.
Bertell Ollman explains it is the individualistic, not the social interpretation of human beings that is absurd and unscientific when examined closely (Alienation, Cambridge University Press, 1973: 108):
The individual cannot escape his dependence on society even when he acts on his own. A scientist who spends his lifetime in a laboratory may delude himself that he is a modern version of Robinson Crusoe, but the material of his activity and the apparatus and skills with which he operates are social products. They are inerasable signs of the cooperation which binds men together. The very language in which a scientist thinks has been learned in a particular society. Social context also determines the career and other life goals that an individual adopts. No one becomes a scientist or even wants to become one in a society which does not have any. In short, man’s consciousness of himself and of his relations with others and with nature are that of a social being, since the manner in which he conceives of anything is a function of his society.
In sum, there never was a Hobbesian “state of nature” where individuals roamed the wilds in a “natural” state of war with one another. Human beings have always lived in social units such as tribes and clans. The roots of our sociality – our “realm of connection” or “human harvest” – are both physical–emotional and mental–conceptual. The unique aspect of human sociality is that the “webs of connection” that inevitably connect all human beings are woven not just by a “resonance of the flesh” but by a shared consciousness and mutual accountability as well. Individual humans do not exist in isolation from their species community. It is not possible to fulfill our needs and employ our powers independently of others. And we have never lived except in active interrelation with one another. But the fact that human beings are inherently social does not mean that all institutions meet our social needs and develop our social capacities equally well. For example, in later chapters I will criticize markets for failing to adequately account for, express and facilitate human sociality.
Human character structures
People are more than their constantly developing needs and powers. At any moment we have particular personality traits, skills, ideas, and attitudes. These human characteristics play a crucial mediating role. On the one hand they largely determine the activities we will select by defining the goals of these activities – our present needs, desires, or preferences. On the other hand, the characteristics themselves are merely the cumulative imprint of our past activities on our innate potentials. What is important regarding human characteristics is to neither underestimate nor overestimate their permanence. Although I have emphasized that people derive needs, powers, and characteristics over their lifetimes as the result of their activities, we are never completely free to do so at any point in time. Not only are people limited by the particular menu of role offerings of the social institutions that surround them, they are constrained at any moment by the personalities, skills, knowledge, and values they have accumulated as of that moment themselves. But even though character structures may persist over long periods of time, they are not totally invariant. Any change in the nature of our activities that persists long enough can lead to changes in our personalities, skills, ideas, and values, as well as changes in our derived needs and desires that depend on them.
A full theory of human development would have to explain how personalities, skills, ideas, and values form, why they usually persist, but occasionally change, and what relationship exists between these semi-permanent structures and people’s needs and capacities. No such psychological theory now exists, nor is visible on the horizon. But fortunately, a few “low level” insights are sufficient for our purposes.
The relation of consciousness to activity
The fact that our knowledge and values influence our choice of activities is easy to understand. The manner in which our activities influence our consciousness and the importance of this relation is less apparent. A need that frequently arises from the fact that we see ourselves as choosing among alternatives, is the need to interpret our choices in a positive light. If we saw our behavior as completely beyond our own control, there would be no need to justify it, even to ourselves. But to the extent that we see ourselves as choosing among options, it can be very uncomfortable if we are not able to “rationalize” our decisions. This is not to say that people always succeed in justifying their actions, even to themselves. Nor do all circumstances make it equally easy to do so! Rather, the point is that striving to minimize what some psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” is a corollary of our power of consciousness. The tendency to minimize cognitive dissonance creates a subtle duality to the relationship between thought and action in which each influences the other, rather than a unidirectional causality. When we fulfill needs through particular activities we are induced to mold our thoughts to justify or rationalize both the logic and merit of those activities, thereby generating consciousness-personality structures that can have permanence beyond that of the activities that formed them.
The possibility of detrimental character structures
An individual’s ability to mold her needs and powers at any moment is constrained by her previously developed personality, skills, and consciousness. But these characteristics were not always “givens” that must be worked with; they are the products of previously chosen activities in combination with “given” genetic potentials. So why would anyone choose to engage in activities that result in characteristics detrimental to future need fulfillment? One possibility is that someone else, who does not hold our interests foremost, made the decision for us. Another obvious possibility is that we failed to recognize important developmental effects of current activities chosen primarily to fulfill pressing immediate needs. But imposed choices and personal mistakes are not the most interesting possibilities. At any moment we have a host of active needs and powers. Depending on our physical and social environment it may not always be possible to fulfill and develop them all simultaneously. In many situations it is only possible to meet current needs at the expense of generating habits of thinking and behaving that prove detrimental to achieving greater fulfillment later. This can explain why someone might make choices that develop detrimental character traits even if they are aware of the long run consequences.
In sum, people are self-creative within the limits defined by human nature, but this must be interpreted carefully. At any moment each individual is constrained by her previously developed human characteristics. Moreover, as individuals we are powerless to change the social roles defined by society’s major institutions within which most of our activity must take place. So as individuals we are to some extent powerless to affect the kind of behavior that will mold our future character traits. Hence, these traits, and any desires that may depend on them, may remain beyond our reach, and our power of self-generation is effectively constrained by the social situations in which we find ourselves. But in the sense that these social situations are ultimately human creations, and to the extent that individuals have maneuverability within given social situations, the potential for self-creation is preserved. In other words, we humans are both the subjects and the objects of our history. The concept of the Human Center is defined to incorporate these conclusions.
• The Human Center is the collection of people who live within a society with all their needs, powers, personalities, skills, and consciousness. This includes our natural and species needs and powers – the results of an evolutionary process that occurred long before known history began. It includes all the structural human characteristics that are givens as far as the individual is concerned at any moment, but are, in fact, the accumulated imprint of her previous activity choices on innate potentials. And it includes our derived needs and powers, or preferences and capacities that are determined by the interaction of our natural and species needs and powers with the human characteristics we have accumulated.
THE INSTITUTIONAL BOUNDARY
People “create” themselves, but only in defined settings which place important limitations on their options. Besides the limitations of our genetic potential and the natural environment, the most important settings that structure people’s self-creative efforts are social institutions which establish the patterns of expectation within which human activity must occur.
Social institutions are simply conglomerations of interrelated roles. If we consider a factory, the buildings, assembly lines, raw materials, and products are objects, and part of the “built” environment. Ruth, Joe, and Sam, the people who work in, or own the factory, are people, and part of society’s human center. The factory as an institution is the roles and the relationships between those roles: assembly line worker, maintenance worker, foreman, supervisor, plant manager, union steward, minority stockholder, majority stockholder, etc. Similarly, the market as an institution consists of the roles of buyers and sellers. It is neither the place where buying and selling occurs, nor the actual people who buy and sell. It is not even the actual behavior of buying and selling. Actual behavior belongs in the sphere of human activity, or history itself, and is not the same as the social institution that produces that history in interaction with the human center. Rather, the market institution is the commonly held expectation that the social activity of exchanging goods and services will take place through the activity of consensual buying and selling.
We must be careful to define roles and institutions apart from whether or not the expectations that establish them will continue to be fulfilled, because to think of roles and institutions as fulfilled expectations lends them a permanence they may not deserve. Obviously a social institution only lasts if the commonly held expectations about behavior patterns are confirmed by repeated actual behavior patterns. But if institutions are defined as fulfilled expectations about behavior patterns it becomes difficult to understand how institutions might change. We want to be very careful not to prejudge the stability of particular institutions, so we define institutions as commonly held expectations and leave the question of whether or not these expectations will continue to be fulfilled – that is, whether or not any particular institution will persist or be transformed is an open question.
Why must there be social institutions?
If we were mind readers, or if we had infinite time to consult with one another, human societies might not require mediating institutions. But if there is to be a “division of labor,” and if we are neither omniscient nor immortal, people must act on the basis of expectations about other people’s behavior. If I make a pair of shoes in order to sell them to pay a dentist to fill my daughter’s cavities, I am expecting others to play the role of shoe buyer, and dentists to render their services for a fee. I neither read the minds of the shoe buyers and dentist, nor take the time to arrange and confirm all these coordinated activities before proceeding to make the shoes. Instead I act based on expectations about others’ behavior.
So institutions are the necessary consequence of human sociability combined with our lack of omniscience and our mortality – which has important implications for the tendency among some anarchists to conceive of the goal of liberation as the abolition of all institutions. Anarchists correctly note that individuals are not completely “free” as long as institutional constraints exist. Any institutional boundary makes some individual choices easier and others harder, and therefore infringes on individual freedom to some extent. But abolishing social institutions is impossible for the human species. The relevant question about institutions, therefore, should not be whether we want them to exist, but whether any particular institution poses unnecessarily oppressive limitations, or promotes human development and fulfillment to the maximum extent possible.
In conclusion, if one insists on asking where, exactly, the Institutional Boundary is to be found, the answer is that as commonly held expectations about individual behavior patterns, social institutions are a very practical and limited kind of mental phenomenon. As a matter of fact they are a kind of mental phenomenon that other social animals share – baboons, elephants, wolves, and a number of bird species have received much study. But just because our definition of roles and institutions locates them in people’s minds, where we have also located consciousness, does not mean there is not an important distinction between the two. It is human consciousness that provides the potential for purposefully changing our institutions. As best we know, animals cannot change their institutions since they did not create them in the first place. Other animals receive their institutions as part of their genetic inheritance that comes already “wired in.” We humans inherit only the necessity of creating some social institutions due to our sociability and lack of omniscience. But the specific creations are, within the limits of our potentials, ours to design.
Figure 1.1 Human Center and Institutional Boundary
• The Institutional Boundary is society’s particular set of social institutions that are each a conglomeration of interconnected roles, or commonly held expectations about appropriate behavior patterns. We define these roles independently of whether or not the expectations they represent will continue to be fulfilled, and apart from whatever incentives do or do not exist for individuals to choose to behave in their accord. The Institutional Boundary is necessary in any human society since we are neither immortal nor omniscient, and is distinct from both human consciousness and activity. It is human consciousness that makes possible purposeful transformations of the Institutional Boundary through human activity.
A social theory useful for pursuing human liberation must highlight the relationship between social institutions and human characteristics. But it is also important to distinguish between different areas, or spheres of social life, and consider the possible relationships between them. In Liberating Theory seven progressive authors called our treatment of these issues “complementary holism.”
Four spheres of social life
The economy is not the only “sphere” of social activity. In addition to creating economic institutions to organize our efforts to meet material needs and desires, people have organized community institutions for addressing our cultural and spiritual needs, intricate “sex-gender,” or “kinship” systems for satisfying our sexual needs and discharging our parental functions, and elaborate political systems for mediating social conflicts and enforcing social decisions. So in addition to the economic sphere of social life we have what we call a community sphere, a kinship sphere, and a political sphere as well. In this book we will be primarily concerned with evaluating the performance of the economic sphere, but the possible relationships between the economy and other spheres of social life are worthy of some consideration.
A monist paradigm presumes some form of dominance, or hierarchy of influence among the spheres of social life, while a pluralist social theory studies the dynamics of each sphere separately and then attempts to sum the results. A complementary holist approach assumes any form of dominance (or lack of dominance) among the four spheres of social life is a matter to be determined by empirical study of particular societies. All four spheres are socially necessary. Any society that failed to produce and distribute the material means of life would cease to exist. Some Marxists argue that this implies that the economic sphere, or what they call the economic “base” or “mode of production,” is necessarily dominant in any and all human societies. But any society that failed to procreate and rear the next generation would also cease to exist. So the kinship sphere of social life is just as “socially necessary” as the economic sphere. And any society that failed to mediate conflicts among its members would disintegrate. Which means the political sphere of social life is necessary as well. Finally, since all societies have existed in the context of other, historically distinct societies, and many contain more than one historically distinct community, all societies have had to establish some kind of relations with other social communities, and most have had to define relations among internal communities as well. This means that the community sphere of social life is as necessary as the political, kinship, and economic spheres.
Figure 1.2 Four Spheres of Social Life
Besides being necessary, each of the four spheres is usually governed by elaborate social institutions that can take many different forms and have significant impacts on people’s characteristics and behavior. This, more than their “social necessity” is why complementary holism recognizes that all four spheres are important, but that any pattern of dominance that may or may not result cannot be determined by theory alone. Instead of a priori presumptions of dominance, complementary holism holds there are a number of possible kinds of relations that can exist among spheres, and which possibility pertains in a particular society can only be determined by empirical investigation.
Relations between center, boundary and spheres
The human center and institutional boundary, and the four spheres of social life, are useful conceptual building blocks for an emancipatory social theory. The concepts human center and institutional boundary include all four kinds of social activity, but distinguish between people and institutions. The spheres of social life encompass both the human and institutional aspects of a particular kind of social activity, but distinguish between different primary functions of different activities. The possible relations between center and boundary, and between different spheres, are obviously critical.
It is evident that if a society is to be stable people must generally fit the roles they are going to fill. Actual behavior must generally conform to the expected patterns of behavior defined by society’s major social institutions. People must choose activities in accord with the roles available, and this requires that people’s personalities, skills, and consciousness be such that they do so. We must be capable and willing to do what is required of us. In other words, there must be conformity between society’s human center and institutional boundary for social stability.
Suppose this were not the case. For example, suppose South African whites had shed their racist consciousness overnight, but all the institutions of apartheid had remained intact. Unless the institutions of apartheid were also changed, rationalization of continued participation in institutions guided by racist norms would have eventually regenerated racist consciousness among South African whites. Or, on a smaller scale, suppose one professor eliminates grades, makes papers optional, and no longer dictates course curriculum nor delivers monologues for lectures, but instead, awaits student initiatives. If students arrive conditioned to respond to grading incentives alone, wanting to be led or entertained by the instructor, then the elimination of authoritarianism in the institutional structures of a single classroom in the context of continued authoritarian expectations in the student body would result in very little learning indeed.
Social stability and social change
Whether the result of any “discrepancy” between the human center and institutional boundary will lead to a remolding of the center to conform with an unchanged boundary, or changes in the boundary that make it more compatible with the human center cannot be known in advance. But in either case stabilizing forces within societies act to bring the center and boundary into conformity, and lack of conformity is a sign of social instability.
But this is not to say that the human centers and institutional boundaries of all human societies are equally easy to stabilize. While we are always being socialized by the institutions we confront, this process can run into more or fewer obstacles depending on the extent to which particular institutional structures are compatible or incompatible with innate human potentials. In other words, just as there are always stabilizing forces at work in societies, there are often destabilizing forces as well resulting from institutional incompatibilities with fundamental human needs. For example, no matter how well oiled the socialization processes of a slave society, there remains a fundamental incompatibility between the social role of slave and the innate human potential and need for self-management. That incompatibility is a constant source of potential instability in societies that seek to confine people to slave status.
It is also possible for dynamics in one sphere to reinforce or destabilize dynamics in another sphere of social life. For example, it might be that the functioning of the nuclear family produces authoritarian personality structures that reinforce authoritarian dynamics in economic relations. Dynamics in economic hierarchies might also reinforce patriarchal hierarchies in families. In this case authoritarian dynamics in the economic and kinship spheres would be mutually reinforcing. Or, hierarchies in one sphere sometimes accommodate hierarchies in other spheres. For example, the assignment of people to economic roles might accommodate prevailing hierarchies in community and kinship spheres by placing minorities and women into inferior economic positions. It is also possible that role definitions themselves in a sphere are influenced by dynamics from another sphere. For instance, if the economic role of secretary includes tending the coffee machine as well as dictation, typing, and filing, the role of secretary is defined not merely by economic dynamics but by kinship dynamics as well.
On the other hand, it is possible for the activity in one sphere to disrupt the manner in which activity is organized in another sphere. For instance, the educational system as one component of the kinship sphere might graduate more people seeking a particular kind of economic role than the economic sphere can provide under its current organization. This would produce destabilizing expectations and demands in the economic sphere, and\or the educational system in the kinship sphere. Some argued this was the case during the 1960s and 1970s in the US when college education was expanded greatly and produced “too many” with higher level thinking skills for the number of positions permitting the exercise of such potentials in the monopoly capitalist US economy – giving rise to a “student movement.” In any case, at the broadest level, there can be either stabilizing or destabilizing relations among spheres.
Agents of history
The stabilizing and destabilizing forces that exist between center and boundary and among different spheres of social life operate constantly whether or not people in the society are aware of them or not. But these ever present forces for social stability or social change are usually complemented by conscious efforts of particular social groups seeking to maintain or transform the status quo. Particular ways of organizing the economy may generate privileged and disadvantaged classes. Similarly, the organization of kinship activity may distribute the burdens and benefits unequally between gender groups – for example granting men more of the benefits while assigning them fewer of the burdens of kinship activity than women. And particular community institutions may not serve the needs of all community groups equally well, for example denying racial or religious minorities rights or opportunities enjoyed by majority communities. Therefore, besides underlying forces that stabilize or destabilize societies, groups who enjoy more of the benefits and shoulder fewer of the burdens of social cooperation in any sphere have an interest in acting to preserve the status quo. Groups who suffer more of the burdens and enjoy fewer of the benefits under existing arrangements in any sphere can become agents for social change. In this way groups that are either privileged or disadvantaged by the rules of engagement in any of the four spheres of social life can become agents of history.
The key to understanding the importance of classes without neglecting or underestimating the importance of privileged and disadvantaged groups defined by community, kinship or political relations is to recognize that only some agents of history are economic groups, or classes.* Racial, gender, and political groups can also be conscious agents working to preserve or change the status quo, which consists not only of the reigning economic relations, but the dominant gender, community, and political relations as well. Pre-Mandela South African society is a useful case to consider. Of course the economy generated privileged and exploited classes – capitalists and workers, landowners and tenants, etc. South African patriarchal gender relations also disadvantaged women compared to men, and undemocratic political institutions empowered a minority and disenfranchised most citizens. But the most important social relations, from which the system derived its name, apartheid, were rules for classifying citizens into specific communities – whites, colored, blacks – and defining different rights and obligations for people according to their community status. The community relations of apartheid created oppressor and oppressed racial community groups who played the principal roles in the social struggle to preserve or overthrow the status quo in South Africa. This perspective need not deny that classes, or gender groups for that matter, played significant roles as well. But a social theory that recognizes all spheres of social life, and understands that privileged and disadvantaged groups can emerge from any of these areas where the burdens and benefits of social cooperation are not distributed equally, can help us avoid neglecting important agents of history, and help us understand why not all forms of oppression will be redressed by a social revolution in one sphere of social life alone – as important as that change may be.
Hopefully this conception of human beings, human societies, and different spheres of social life in the liberating social theory summarized in this chapter provides a proper setting for our study of “political economy” – one that neither overstates nor understates its role in the social sciences.
* Broadly speaking the term “economism” means attributing greater importance to the economy than is warranted. It can take the form of assuming that dynamics in the economic sphere are more important than dynamics in other spheres when this, in fact, is not the case in some particular society. It can also take the form of assuming that classes are more important agents of social change, and racial, gender or political groups are less important “agents of history” than they actually are in a particular situation.