RE: Real History Vs Imaginary "Historical Processes"

Thu, 10 Apr 1997 20:08:54 -0400 (EDT)
Andrew Wayne Austin (

In an attempt to return this conversation to more civil grounds, I asked
David Lloyd-Jones some reasonable and simple questions. He has answered
some of these questions (although not so reasonably at times). Since I
started this post, David sent another one through, evidently one prepared
for inclusion on his webpage somewhere. In that document, David denies and
the affirms having claimed that evangelicals are the primary force in
opening up China to the world. I have chosen not to answer any more of
David's posts for the time being, but am send this one along because I
think it pins David down on several of the points he has in the past

I asked David, "What is it about scientific materialism that you find at

David answers in several ways. "The question is meaningless without a
context" and "'Scientific materialism,' it seems to me, can only have a
useful meaning as a label for a collection of techniques for looking at
things." Then he gives several examples. "'Scientific materialism' as an
explanation," he writes, "let alone an engine, of history strikes me as
simply a meaningless concatenation of sounds, mystical hocus pocus like
that damn dialectic that Jenny was always losing."

The context of the discussion has been established. David and I are
talking about the political economy of the world, in particular change
going on in China. We are weighing the relative importance of variables
that we are implicating in these changes. Furthermore, David is on the
world-systems network, where the discussion of the world-system is the
general subject of discussion and historical/scientific materialism is the
accepted mode of analysis.

David observes that scientific materialism can be useful when recognized
as a way of looking at the world. Of course; how could it be otherwise?
When I criticize David's subjectivist idealism I do so based on a
recognition that subjectivist idealism is one way of looking at the world.
My assertions, then, lie in the relative merits of a scientific
materialist viewpoint versus a subjectivist idealist viewpoint. I regard
the former as meeting the criteria for valid scientific explanation. The
latter, when not plugged into a scientific materialist perspective, is not
scientific and becomes ideology (religion, etc.).

Finally, and most importantly, I never claimed that scientific materialism
is an engine of history. Scientific materialism is a rigorous and critical
way of looking at the world. It is a scientific paradigm. Moreover, the
dialectic is a methodology and a process, not an a priori force working to
change the world. Here David has constructed a strawman. There is a view
called dialectical materialism that naturalizes the dialectic as an engine
of change that works its way out in the "iron laws of history" (as Stalin
put it). Historical/scientific materialism, the perspective I adopt in my
posts to this list, does not hold this belief, and I have made this
crystal clear on this and other channels. To repeat, then, neither
scientific materialism nor the dialectical method, generally speaking, are
a priori or exert a causal force on the production of objective history.
One caveat: a scientist armed with scientific materialism can produce a
technology that can dramatically change social reality, in which case
scientific materialism can be said to exert some causal force on history.
But it is just as clear that subjectivist idealism can have this sort of
impact, as well, such as when an ideological belief in the unreality of
society leads to a failure of a population to correctly understand
exploitation and make the appropriate moral responses.

I then asked David, "What do you mean when you say I hold a "reified"

He answers in this way, "Quite simply -- ya could look it up -- you
talk about history as if it were a material object. What else would need
an engine and be expained [sic] in only material terms?"

First, I asked David what he meant by this because his terminology is
typically at odds with generally accepted social scientific terminology. I
understand what "reification" is, just not so sure how David might have
meant it. History is real. History exerts a tremendous causal force on the
present. In many ways what occurs today can be said to be caused by what
occurred yesterday. History should not be conceptualized as a word made
object (we should avoid solipsism for obvious reasons). Rather history is
a objective category that contains those structures and processes that
occurred in the past. This means that history contains both objective
material and objective ideational components. History is comprised of what
actually occurred in the past.

David has conflated his philosophical perspective of subjectivist
idealism, which holds that all reality is a mental creation, with world
history, and reduced all of social and material reality that has passed
before us to a mental event. This is a hopeless enterprise and rather
ironic; if my arguments are to be dismissed because they ultimately cannot
make reference to some independently existing reality (that is, a reality
that stands distinct from the conceptual categories describing it) then
David's arguments can have no such ground to stand upon either, and every
argument he has made thus far amounts to nothing but personal, subjective
ramblings. The question then becomes: What is David's purpose in joining
lists inhabited by historical materialists who use of scientific
(dialectical) methods?

Finally, David has accused me of employing only a materialist
understanding of history, that is, a conception of history needing a
material engine, according to him. This is another distortion of my
argument. Historical materialism examines both the material forces and the
social relations that produce objective history. Also, I have stressed
the importance of ideas in history. This distortion is a very old tactic.

I asked David if he was "arguing that collective behavior is not
qualitatively different from individual behavior?

His answer was inappropriate. "Again, I don't understand the question
without any context. Which individual? Which group? Which quality?" he

The question is a methodological one meant to expose David's
methodological individualism. I suspected that, since he has in the past
denyed the existence of society, he believes that there are only
aggregates of individuals and individuals, in which case there is only a
quantitative distinction rather than a qualitative distinction between
individuals and groups. It is a question that needs no context, just a
straight answer. I was optimistic.

Because David suggested that I was nuts for even believing that the owner
of a bank made decisions about how the bank was run, I asked "Why is the
idea of elite management so unbelievable for you?"

To which he responds, "Hunh? [sic] What on Earth makes you think I think
that? Obviously there are elites of various kinds, and obviously they try
to exert their collective and individual wills -- with varying success.
Best laid plans of mice and men... But as a past, present, and I hope
future member of various elites, perhaps I am more aware of their/our
limitations than some of the soi-disant non-elites you have been

We have now established that bankers do have some control over the banks
they own. Moreover, we have established that elites are constrained by
objective historical and social structures. This was why I asked these
series of questions: they reveal that once we boil out the insults and
hyperbole from David's rhetoric he is forced to admit to the simple
realities that are contained in my arguments and the arguments of social
scientists generally. (I am also curious as to which "*soi-disant*
non-elites" David thinks I have been reading.)

To take the discussion of human agency to a more structural level I asked,
"Do you deny that the IMF imposes structural adjustment on countries in
debt crisis?"

David answers. "Of course not, or at least it tries, with mixed success. I
even object strongly -- and probably in more detail and with more effect
than you -- to their tendency to decontrol the price of rice and beans,
rather than capping military expenditures, a much faster and easier way of
bringing a country's finances back into line."

The question was not which policy focus David prefers enacted by the IMF
or any other global institution. The question was meant to force David to
admit to the fact that there is global planning. David has agreed that
there are. It is turning out that on several substantive points David
actually shares my views. Why does he disagree with the same points in his
more insulting diatribes?

I asked David about several past and present global institutions and
processes, Bretton Woods, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the
World Trade Organization. I wondered why did or do these organizations

David argues that it is "The triumph of hope over common sense."

Not only has David admitted to global capitalist management, but he has
admitted to supporting global capitalist management, describing it as a
"triumph of hope [capitalist exploitation and domination] over common
sense [freedom, democracy, and human rights]." This is a position, I
suppose, but it is strange that in this same post David claims to be a
social democrat of the Second International variety. I find this puzzling.

I asked another simple question. "When the board of directors for a
mammoth TNC makes a decision about where to locate production, you do not
think this is planned?"

"The CEO remembers where his wife liked the priests at the temple near the
hotel, as often as not," David remarks. Then writes, "Seriously, if you
think it is done rationally, I have this bridge for sale."

The return of David to this tone is unfortunate, but the content of the
statement is rather ridiculous and contrary to what we know about human
behavior under capitalism. A CEO inserts a production facility in a
country based on several factors, the least of which will be whether "his
wife liked priests at the temple near the hotel." His plans are "rational"
if he calculates costs versus benefits, makes an assessment of level of
infrastructural development, the education and skills of the labor pools,
the political stability of the region, the wage levels, degree of
environmental regulation, level of taxation of business, access to
transportation, presence or absence of labor unions and the strength of
worker and other groups organizing, etc. Successful TNCs/MNCs weigh these
factors over the aesthetic or religious pleasures of their wives.

To make sure David will admit to global management one last time, I ask a
couple of questions. "Is there no complex of organizations moving at the
global level?"

Response: "There are many global organizations, and even more trying to
become global. Some, like McDonalds and Kelly Vacuum Cleaners in fact
operate effectively in a global sense."

Question: "How do all these trade deals get done?"

Another dodge. "'Nuther meaningless question. Name a deal, we'll discuss
it. If you think there is a set of explanations for all of them, see the
bridge for sale, op. cit."

Question: "GATT? NAFTA? Do you not believe that things that happen in
the world are objective reality?"

Answer: "I agree that organizations named GATT and NAFTA exist. I would be
surprised if there was much more than that which has 'objective reality'
in the sense that Manhattan Island (modulo land fill and outgoing garbage)
or my Casio watch do. There are happenings in the world; to call them
'things' is only a convention of English and some other languages."

But doesn't David understand that all labels for "things" are linguistic
conventions? And that the existence of structures and process are not
dependent on the conventional labels attached to them to be objectively
real? How do animals interact if they have no language to define their
relations? This comes down to a basic question of philosophy. Do things
exist because we have named them? Or are names created to describe things
in the real world? It is a matter of fact that I do not exist solely
because I was named. I am an objective reality, named or not. And my
relation to the environment, a relation upon which my continued objective
existence is dependent, is also an objective reality. I do not have to
have a linguistic category at hand in order to objectively produce my
continued existence in collective activity with other human beings in
relation to the environment. Homo sapiens prior to language also had such
relations, for if they didn't it is a self-evident fact that our species
would not have survived long enough to develop language. David's argument
is purely ideological here and it is deeply contradicted. It is
ideological because he must deny the objective reality of social and
material relations so that issues like exploitation and domination have no
objective social and material base; this was established in other
conversations that David and I have had. His argument is deeply
contradicted because at the same time he refers to objectively existing
social and material structures and relations he denies their existence by
deploying an extreme solipsistic rhetoric. Until David resolves this deep
contradiction and, what really amounts to a, hypocrisy, his arguments in
total cannot be taken seriously. A clear example of this is the argument,
which he denies he made in his most recent post, but then makes again in
that very same post, that evangelicals are doing more to transform China
than political economic activity.

I am a "silly bunny" for pointing out that David's remark that the
"processes of history are ex post facto analytical constructs" employs
what amounts to a Lewis Carroll exercise in illogic by having the following
structure: The past is an analytical construct that makes up the
processes of history at a point temporally subsequent to the past.

"Austin, you silly bunny, the processes you impute to history are
different from the happenings. The happenings, whatever they were,
happened in the past. Your invented processes happen in your time frame,
which comes later. Are you really obtuse, or do you have to do this to
keep your AFTRA card alive?"

But it is not my analysis that I claim to create world-historical
processes. David had previously denied the existence of society and social
processes. It should matter little at all to David whatever theory I might
present if David regards the past as only theoretically constructed. To
the point, when I discuss world-historical forces, in the form of social
and material relations of production, I am not advancing a theory at all.
These forces are an objective and material fact. They always have been,
despite what any one person or group of persons thinks about them. Whether
people thing they are caused by God or by capitalist processes, they
remain objective reality. And since the factual basis of capitalist
processes can be empirically demonstrated, whereas God cannot, a theory
which relates the facts of capitalism with the fact of world events is
automatically on surer scientific ground. Theory is the interpretation of
these facts. What David has done is to deny the factual existence of the
real world a priori in an attempt to make his own argument impregnable to
criticism. And at those points where this is made obvious he slides into
ad hominem and sarcasm. Nothing could be more obvious than this. It is my
view, at this point, that only David's pride keeps him from admitting his
tactics and the falsity of his views.

For example, look at his response to my observation that his logic is
"akin to saying that we must first analytically construct a tree before a
tree can be a material reality."

"Depends on the tree, dunnit? Yggdrasil, anybody? Even at the casual
level of everyday reality, a tree may look like ready lumber to you or me,
but be quite useless to cut down because the future price of pulp has
changed in Chicago. How simple-minded do you want to get? 'Its a tree,
dammit.'? Well, yeah, sure, it's a tree. Or is its essential material
reality the fact that it is blocking a potential highway or dam? What are
you trying to prove with your silly question?"

I proved David's position silly with my question. And David continue to
provide amble empirical confirmation of my conclusion.

"Is history even important?" I wondered.

The correctness of David's answer--"As important as any other set of
attempts at grasping reality, which attempts we live by"--is curious
considering the absolute disrespect he has for any sort of reasonable
discussion on matters of history and science. I do not believe David when
he says he regards history as important; it is in contradiction with
everything he has ever written that I have read.

Andrew Austin