The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Talcott Parsons: a Marxist view

From Chapter 4 of Mandel's The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx. After a discussion of Marx's economic theorizing from 1846 to 1848, Mandel writes:

....The synthesis of sociology and economic science that Marx endeavored to accomplish derives its enormous superiority from the fact that it is based on a synthesis of the logical (dialectical) method with the historical method.37 No other theory has so far achieved a synthesis which comes anywhere near the practical success of the Marxist method.

Recently the American sociologist Talcott Parsons has tried to effect a comparable synthesis. Within the framework of a highly formalized sociology and a general theory of action, he treats the economy as a special feature of a “social system” specialized in increasing the “adaptability” of the wider system.38 This attempt at a synthesis can be considered a failure for three fundamental reasons: its largely unhistorical character, its inability to grasp the basically contradictory nature of every “social system” (and of all reality), and its rather clearly apologetic tendency in relation to the reality of present-day capitalism (monopoly capitalism, which has closely integrated the state with itself, or neo-capitalism).

Talcott Parsons alleges, to be sure, that his analysis applies to “any society” and “any” social system.39 But this ambitious claim does not stand up to historical criticism. When Parsons says that the state of demand and conditions of production change continuously, in all societies, except in “highly traditional” primitive economies,40 he overturns the teaching of economic history. In fact, these “continuous” changes in demand and conditions of production are only the product of generalized commodity economies—which fill only a very small part of the total history to date of homo sapiens. Parsons discovers the origin of “capital” (defined, in the usual way of apologetics, as the totality of society’s “fluid” resources: as if a primitive village’s stock of seed, or the flocks of a nomadic tribe living at the stage of gentile communism, were “capital”!; as if capital were not a social relation!) in the links between the economy and the political collectivity, through generalization of the role played by credit in the epoch of the decline of monopoly capitalism. How then is one to explain the “normal” accumulation of capital in large-scale industry at the dawn of Britain’s age of laissez-faire, when the role played by credit was clearly secondary, and when, moreover, credit was largely private?

The unhistorical nature of Talcott Parsons’s functionalist schema is obvious when one notes that most of his definitions in the economic field are only generalizations (made hardly even a little abstract) of the essential features of a capitalist economy, and even of a capitalist economy in a particular phase of its development. Thus, his definition of the economy as striving to attain the “goal” of maximizing production within the framework of the system of institutionalized values41 (as if there had not been a series of modes of production whose “institutionalized values” implied precisely deliberate refusal to “maximize production”!). Or his definition of the “contract” as the central economic institution (as if the contract were not the offspring of commodity production).42

His inability to grasp the contradictory character of “social systems,” and a fortiori of “economic systems,” is the most important of the three weaknesses of Talcott Parsons’s schema. By eliminating conflicts between social groups from the foundation of his analysis; by considering the “systems” as tending to “integration,” to “lessening of tensions”; by concealing the fact that the dominant “values” of a system do not at all correspond to the interests of all its members but only to those of the dominant minority, Parsons renders himself incapable of explaining either the driving force of historical evolution, which passes from one social and economic system to another (the periodical conflict between the level of development of the productive forces and the relations of production), or the concrete form that historical evolution takes (the struggle between antagonistic classes and social forces). Whereas the Marxist system enables us to explain historical phenomena as different as the origin of the Asiatic mode of production, the decline of the Roman Empire, the rise of the cities in the Middle Ages, the coming of large-scale industry, the wiping-out of free competition, the outburst of Fascism and its defeat, we would search in vain in Talcott Parsons’s formulae for the elements needed in order to understand these varying phenomena. The few remarks about pre-capitalist social contradictions that can be found in Economy and Society reveal a lack of understanding which is sometimes almost grotesque.43

Talcott Parsons’s fundamental thesis comes to grief through his incomprehension of social conflicts and their economic roots. Every “economic system,” when it reaches a certain point of development, does not increase but, on the contrary, greatly reduces the adaptability of its “larger social system.” The evolution of the Roman Empire after the second and third centuries A.D., or the evolution of China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, provide striking examples in disproof of Parsons’s schema.

As for the apologetic character of Talcott Parsons’s theory, this is shown especially in the way he deals with the institutional framework of capitalist society. Labor makes the decision—within the workers’ “households”!—to offer its “performance” to the “organizations,” in exchange for and in consideration of “remuneration” and other “satisfactions.” This decision is taken primarily(!) on the basis of a “general socialized motivation.”44 And so on. The fact of a social class with neither resources of its own nor access to means of subsistence, one which thereby suffers an economic constraint precedent to any “socialized motivation,” any “acceptance of the fact of labor”—the only other solution being death from starvation!—has no place in Parsons’s “institutional” analysis. Similarly, one looks in vain for the slightest explanation of the fact that feudal ground rent obviously represents a product of labor not paid for by the nobility, which the latter appropriates, or the slightest attempt to disprove the analogy which can be perceived between the social surplus product in pre-capitalist times and the surplus value produced under the capitalist mode of production.

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