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Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
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Althusser: The Social Formation as a Totality of Instances

In Reading Capital , Althusser and Balibar define a social formation as a "totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production" (Althusser and Balibar, 1970, 207). Let us take this definition as our point of departure and, for the moment, concentrate on the social formation as a "totality of instances." The "instances" to which Althusser and Balibar refer are themselves distinct structural levels of social relations and "practices," each possessing a functional unity and composed of more specific structures. Practice is central to the concept of every instance—"all levels of social existence are the site of distinct practices" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 58)—but Althusser makes no hard and fast distinction among social structures, relations, and practices. Social relations are concrete actualizations or empirical manifestations of social structures, while social structures are realized, reproduced, and transformed through rule-bound yet open-ended practice , a term Althusser defines simply as "transformations effected by a determinate human labor using a determinate means (of 'production')" (Althusser 1969, 166). It is therefore pointless to speak of an opposition between "impersonal" structures and "human" practices within Structural Marxism. The thrust of Althusser's thinking is not to oppose the human and the inhuman; rather, it is to comprehend the contradictions between and within the structured relations and practices that constitute human beings as social subjects and constitute places, positions, and roles as the social space within which all human practice necessarily occurs. The predominance attributed to practice does not imply that human beings are the autonomous subjects of such practices—a position Althusser rejects—but it does firmly situate all social practices within the field of human activity.

Social formations are a complex hierarchy of functionally organized institutions or instances whose unity can be neither ignored altogether nor reduced to a single closed system.[2] In principle, the number of instances is open rather than closed, and the specification of distinct practices is a heuristic rather than an axiomatic process. Initially, Althusser specifies three instances, economic, political, and ideological, as designating practices necessary to the concept of a social formation insofar


as they refer to functions without which human social existence cannot be conceived. Economic practice refers to the transformation of nature into socially useful products, political practice to the reproduction and administration of collective social relations and their institutional forms, and ideological practice to the constitution of social subjects and their consciousness. Of course, Althusser and others have offered extended treatments of other types of practice—theoretical, aesthetic, and so on—that may have greater or lesser predominance depending on the particular type of society we are talking about.

All practices are viewed by Structural Marxists as unevenly developed or "contradictory." Although there are variations among different writers, we may fairly summarize the contradictions within each of the instances in the following fashion:

1. In economic practice, contradictions exist between relations of cooperation and exploitation within the labor process (the forces of production) and economic ownership (the relations of production). These contradictions are expressed as the antagonistic class interests and capacities of laborers and non-laborers with respect to control over the means and results of production.

2. In political practice, contradictions exist within and between relations of representation and relations of hegemony expressed in the antagonistic interests of the "power bloc," those classes or fractions of classes that effectively control the institutions of collective social organization, and the "masses," other classes or social groups within the social formation lacking such control.

3. In ideological practice, contradictions exist within and between relations of qualification (relations that empower and enable individuals as social subjects) and relations of subjection (relations that restrict individuals to specific roles and capacities).

To avoid another common misunderstanding of the Structural Marxist problematic, it is essential to keep in mind the distinction between the universality of economic, political, and ideological functions and the variety of determinate institutional forms within which these functions may be located historically. In particular, we must avoid the mistaken notion that there exists a single institutional form within every social formation that will correspond to the European concept of the market, the state, or the church. On the contrary, one or more of these functions may be exercised by different social institutions and manifested in relations particular to a specific social formation or mode of production. The historical specificity of functions (or combinations


of functions) does not, however, negate the applicability of general concepts for each function (any more than the general concept of a social subject is negated by the fact that a particular human being may combine distinct attributes or functions—mother, worker, citizen, and so on). While each function is material in that it exists in and through concrete material apparatuses, any concrete apparatus may combine a variety of functions and thus have an effectivity in more than one instance. Finally, it is important to recognize that there are different degrees of abstraction and specificity within the Structural Marxist problematic. For example, the general concept of a social formation as "a totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production" in no way implies that a particular social formation, say an African tribe or a European nation-state, can be deduced from general concepts (any more than it can be objectively built up from data "uncontaminated" by conceptual presuppositions). While there are real, qualitative differences between, for example, economic relations in lineage-based agricultural societies and industrialized capitalist states, there is also a level of generality and abstraction at which we can refer to both of these social formations as having economic relations.

The multiplicity of distinct practices exists always and only in the "complex unity" of a determinate social formation (another heuristic term applicable to forms of integration as diverse as a tribal territory and the global economy). At the level of analysis of the social formation, the economic, political, and ideological instances exist as a system of interrelated, interdependent practices and institutions to which Althusser refers as an "articulation," a unity of relations of domination and subordination. Althusser calls this simultaneous unity of distinct and unequal modes of determination "structural causality." At the same time, however, Althusser also insists on other, "regional" levels of analysis at which the "relative autonomy" of the instances must be acknowledged. Each instance, he maintains, has its own distinct rhythms of development internal to itself such that the social formation is always "unevenly developed," always a constellation of multiple contradictions whose ultimate outcome cannot be predicted. Althusser refuses any move that would "resolve" the tension between structural causality and relative autonomy in the direction of mechanistic determinism or pluralistic indeterminacy. Although each instance has its own relative autonomy, this autonomy exists only as a "specific effectivity" within the structured whole of the social formation, that is, as


the historical product of the unequal, distinct, and simultaneous effectivities of the complex unity of instances. Each instance, in other words, has a relative autonomy that is particular to itself but that has nevertheless been assigned a place and function within the complex unity of the social formation by the social formation itself (the historical matrix or condition of existence of each and every instance). By insisting on a structured hierarchy of determinations embodied in distinct and relatively autonomous institutions and practices, Althusser declares that the social formation cannot be understood either as a functional-pluralist organism in which everything causes everything else or in terms of a reflectionist-essentialist totality in which every practice may be understood as a microcosm of the whole.

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