Demystifying Group Behavior and Locating the Dialectic. By: Jared YackleyRead Now
What is a group? It may seem silly to even ask such a question, especially as a leftist. After all, we speak in terms of groups all the times, and, as Marxists, especially of the struggles between them. For example, we speak of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the struggle between the patriarchy and women, or the struggle between white supremacists and oppressed racial groups. These are just three out of the many ways in which we speak of group struggles, and it seems that such language is vital to addressing the material needs of every person. Without the language of intersectionality, it seems practically impossible to rectify the countless injustices perpetrated against oppressed people. While a still enormous task, the language of intersectionality at least gives us a plausible way to address the needs of all people. But, again, what is a group—the unit of classification that the language of intersectionality is built upon?
A group is an abstraction. If I speak of the group of the bourgeoisie, I speak of the set of people who own a sufficient amount of the means of production such that they may subsist solely on the ownership of those means of production through others’ labor. Now, this set only “exists” as an abstract object. Consider the proposition “No one person can enumerate every member of the set of ‘the bourgeoisie.’” This proposition is extremely probable, if not actually true. If there are any such people, they are certainly few and far between. Clearly, however, this set still objectively obtains in our social world. The set still “picks out” all of the members whether or not any individual person can. I use scare quotes here because the set does not do anything at all; i.e., the set is not an agent capable of doing, the way a physical agent is capable of doing. To articulate even further, the set qua set is not capable of doing work upon the physical world. Only the set as understood by some competent agent is capable of being causally implicated in any work done on any physical systems. As should be obvious, except in the extraordinarily rare case of someone actually being able to enumerate every member of some set, the set as understood will be a distortion of the set qua set. So it seems, then, that the bourgeoisie, qua bourgeoisie, cannot causally impact the physical world.
I am aware that this seems entirely anti-Marxist, but the reader must follow me with precision. If all groups are sets, and no sets can do work, then no groups can do physical work. If something cannot do physical work, then it cannot do anything. So no groups can do anything. However, individual persons acting qua member of some group can really do things. So, while we cannot (strictly speaking) say “The bourgeoisie exploits the Global South” we can say “The members of the set ‘the bourgeoisie’ exploit the members of the set ‘the Global South.’” Through this clarification we ground the action, exploitation, to where it actually occurs; viz., in the lives of the exploited.
Now this may seem to be “mere” semantics, but it is vitally important. Well-meaning leftists are becoming increasingly focused on analyzing situations entirely through group analyses. As we have seen, however, talk of group “action” is simply shorthand for the actions of the members of the group. To entirely subordinate the individuals involved in favor of the idea of group “agents” is to lose sight of who is actually being oppressed.
Let us hone in on the issue of racism as a clear example. Racism is evil precisely because it negatively affects non-white people. It is not evil in virtue of the group, or the set, of non-white people being negatively “affected" by racism. The only way a set can be “affected” is if the quantity of objects belonging to it increases or decreases in the actual world. While one could say that, technically, the set of “Black persons,” for instance, does decrease with the ongoing and horrendous racist police killings in the United States, it seems disrespectful to those killed to say that the reason their murders were evil is because they caused a numerical decrease in the set of “Black persons.” In fact, those murders were evil because they killed those people, because they affected those people. We care about groups insofar as they are composed of people.
Now, why has all of this discussion been even remotely relevant? It is because many on the left, many who even consider themselves Marxists, have abandoned a materialist ontology in favor of Hegelian mysticism. In fact, “reductionist” has become a scare-word among many leftist circles, even though materialism itself is a fundamentally reductionist ontology. In fact, what is unique about Dialectical Materialism is the appropriation of Hegel’s dialectic mode of thought to a materialist conception of reality. While the term “Dialectical Materialism” is not one Marx actually coined, it is an apt name for the way we must approach our philosophy. The qualifier is “Dialectical” and the root is “Materialism.” What we do, then, as Marxists, is to move from our reductionist root, which seeks to explain the world in material terms, to our Dialectical analysis of persons with the material world. However, the strict materialist will always acknowledge that in principle all of these interactions reduce to the material interactions at play.
So groups like the bourgeoisie, white supremacists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, etc., are not agents. When we speak of these groups “doing” things, we must remember that our language there is shorthand for the real, material interactions of individual persons with their environments—because that, at the end of the day, is the location of the material, or real, dialectic process.
Jared Yackley is an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. With his primary focuses in epistemology, history, and political philosophy, Yackley hopes to apply the principles of dialectical materialism to contemporary issues both philosophical and political.
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