Author: Pedro M. Rey-Araújo – Universidade da Coruña (Spain)
The Great Recession brought to the fore the extent to which the extension and intensification of capitalist social relations during past decades had gone hand in hand with its widespread naturalization and de-politicization. Symptomatically, throughout those decades of reigning neoliberalism, critical social theory had experienced an internal split regarding the explanatory power that was to be ascribed to capitalist social relations when accounting for social dynamics. While, no doubt, the study of capitalism has been revived once more ever since, the consequences of such a split have not yet disappeared.
On the one hand, political economy approaches of Marxist provenance, such as, for instance, Regulation theory or Social Structures of Accumulation theory, have certainly excelled at identifying the various crisis tendencies operative within neoliberal capitalism, its main institutional characteristics, as well as its differential implementation across the globe. However, it is our view that their conceptualization of political interests as springing straightforwardly from the self-deployment of capitalist dynamics, together with the insufficient attention paid to non-economic demands and struggles, have resulted more often than not in a reductionist and economicist understanding of political agency.
On the other hand, several other thinkers springing from Gramscian and/or Althusserian traditions, such as Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Rancière or Slavoj Zizek, have provided very nuanced and detailed analyses of socio-political interactions, to be sure. However, they were achieved at the cost of obliterating, in the last instance, the extent to which capitalist dynamics shape the very terrain where those political dynamics they definitely excel at appraising ultimately take place.
In our view, a social theory capable of illuminating our current conjuncture would need to pay due attention to both poles in a markedly non-reductionist fashion. That is, it would need to acknowledge the extent to which the self-deployment of capitalist dynamics moulds and shapes the social field despite the former being neither all-powerful nor all-embracing, while, simultaneously, espousing an understanding of political subjectivity that acknowledges the radical incommensurability of the various factors and motivations informing and affecting it, without presuming the former can ever remain unaffected by the fact that, in the last instance, the social field is traversed by capitalist processes.
In my book Capitalism, Institutions and Social Orders. The Case of Contemporary Spain (Routledge, 2021) I have attempted to develop such a theoretical framework by having recourse to, on the one hand, Social Structures of Accumulation theory and, on the other hand, Ernesto Laclau’s post-structuralist revision of the Marxist problematic.
Capitalist activity, in order to be reproduced over time, does always need the indispensable support provided by an appropriate institutional environment. The latter needs to guarantee a minimum of social stability and predictability for capitalist investment to take place; to pacify inherently conflictive social relations beyond the workplace, thus preventing the emergence of social contestation over the very inequalities the institutional environment institutes and reproduces; to generate internal complementarities among its constituent processes so that the internal dynamics of each do not unsettle the internal stability of the whole; and, lastly, not to compromise its non-capitalist conditions of existence, among which crucially stand the myriad gendered activities undertaken within households without monetary compensation.
Every such institutional structure is thus not only historically contingent but, also, context-specific, that is, its actual shape appears irremediably affected and conditioned by its own legacy of past institutional transformations, on the one hand, as well as by the idiosyncratic constellations of dominant interests within the domestic arena, on the other. From the perspective of systemic reproduction, not all the social processes partaking of such institutional structure will carry the same systemic relevance, insofar as some of them will play a higher-order role in coordinating and structuring the remaining ones. While the social whole is always hierarchically articulated, such a hierarchy is not predetermined ex-ante but, rather, historically contingent. Hence, correctly identifying which ones among those various processes carry higher systemic relevance within a given conjuncture stands as a crucial precondition for any political intervention to be successful in its attempt to reshape and transform the existing institutional order.
Nonetheless, the main issues of political contention in a given conjuncture will not spring straightforwardly from the internal dynamics of the over-arching institutional structure. While such institutional structure will inevitably generate myriad lines of segmentation and exclusion, thus giving rise to various modalities of conflict over the very inequalities it institutes, the very terms in which social contention is articulated will be the result of an autonomous process of political mediation, one through which internal relations of hierarchy among the various social conflicts having access to the sphere of representation will be temporarily established.
In sum, both the various social processes constituting the social totality, on the one hand, and the various social conflicts and demands that managed to gain public visibility, on the other hand, will be hierarchically articulated in a given conjuncture. Nevertheless, while it needs to be stressed that no necessary correspondence exists among both hierarchies, the existence of a fundamental and constitutive hiatus between both domains does not mean they are ultimately dissociated. Firstly, the particular shape adopted by the institutional environment will give rise to unequal opportunities for the various social conflicts to have access to the sphere of political representation. Secondly, the internal dynamics harboured by such institutional structure will be imprint a given unevenness upon the very social field where political struggles are ultimately conducted, thus favouring the advancement of certain conflicts over others, while also conditioning existing opportunities for political intervention over time. Therefore, a correct apprehension of how the various social processes implicated are contingently and hierarchically articulated in a given conjuncture represents a sine qua non condition for any political movement that attempts to successfully reshape and transform the institutional environment where it finds itself immersed. Neither omnipotent nor necessarily doomed to fail, political action ought to apprehend the context-specific conditions of existence of capitalist activity for profound and long-lasting social transformations to be achieved.