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Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
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The Social Formation Articulated on the Basis of a Mode of Production

Remember that Althusser and Balibar define a social formation not simply as a totality of instances but as a totality of instances "articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production." The instances are articulated in relations of domination and subordination—a "structure in dominance"—and it is the primacy of the forces and relations of production which determine "in the last instance" the hierarchy of determinations within a given social formation. This formulation, which smacks of reflectionism, in reality demonstrates the care and sophistication with which Structural Marxists assert the traditional Marxist principle of economic determination. By the term mode of production Althusser and Balibar mean not only the forces and relations of production but also their social conditions of existence and the reproduction of those social conditions. Thus the concept of a mode of production refers not simply to the economic instance, the forces and relations of production proper, but also to the level of the social formation itself, insofar as other, non-economic instances are essential to the reproduction of the forces and relations of production. While the term mode of production is less comprehensive than the term social formation , it is more comprehensive than the economic instance alone. As a structured relation, a mode of production is subject to the same law of uneven development that applies to all social structures and therefore to the same tensions between tendencies toward reproduction and transformation. Nevertheless, whether by explicitly economic means or by institutional forms that may be predominantly political or


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ideological, it is the structural requirements of the economic instance that constitute the organizing principle, the structure of dominance within a given social formation.

Economic determination in the last instance—for all practical purposes synonymous with the primacy of a mode of production—cannot be justifiably criticized for reducing the social formation to a mere reflection of the economy or for eliminating the dynamic effect of contradictory development in favor of some form of static functionalist equilibrium. A contradiction inheres in the uneven development of the economy, a contradiction manifested in various forms of social and economic crisis and in the constant struggle between antagonistic class interests within the forces and relations of production. Another type of uneven development can result from the existence of more than a single mode of production within a social formation. In Reading Capital , Balibar introduces the idea that social formations might be articulated on the basis of multiple modes of production, and as we shall see, this notion has been developed at greater length by Pierre-Philippe Rey and others. Not only does the articulation of multiple modes of production introduce additional complexity into the principle of economic determination, but it also provides an essential concept for thinking about historical transformation within the parameters of structural causality.

The economic function is determinant in the sense that the forces and relations of production establish "limits of variation" within the social formation as a structured whole. However, the "general contradiction"—namely the class antagonism within the forces and relations of production—cannot be understood in isolation from the contradictions between and within other social practices whose specific effectivities react back on the economy: "[the general contradiction] is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates" (Althusser 1969, 101). Althusser likens this process to a "parallelogram of forces" wherein forces of different magnitude confront each other such that the resulting magnitude constitutes a new and different force reflecting the primacy of economic contradictions, but never purely or simply. The primacy of the economy, transmitted to the present from the past by the matrix effect of the mode of production, projects itself into the future as an ensemble of unresolved contradictions and as yet unrealized possibilities.

The concepts of a mode of production and uneven development, when coupled with the realization that social structures are always


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manifested in social relations and actualized by social subjects, explain how it is that Althusser can make the claim (in his 1972 article "Reply to John Lewis," in Althusser 1976) that "class struggle is the motor of history" without thereby abandoning the concepts of structural causality he defends in his earlier books, For Marx and Reading Capital . The key to resolving this exegetic question is the fact that for Althusser the determinative effectivity of "class struggle" is not opposed or antithetical to economic determination in the last instance. They are actually the same phenomenon, structural causality, seen from the different perspectives of human relations and functional forces—both subject to determination in the last instance by the economy. As "non-economic" social structures are conceptualized by Althusser as a mode of production—that is, from the point of view of their determined but contradictory relationship to the transformation and reproduction of the forces and relations of production—so non-economic social relations (which are the concrete manifestation of structural forces) are viewed in terms of their specific effectivities with respect to the transformation and reproduction of the social relations of the economy, namely, antagonistic class relations. The statement "class struggle is the motor of history" restates rather than contradicts Althusser's definition of a social formation as a "totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production." Corresponding to the structural concept of mode of production, moreover, is a particular concept of social relations referred to by Althusser as "social class," by which he means the class bias or class valence of non-economic social relations. How it is that individual human beings are constituted as members of social classes is a question to which we will return.

With this schematic overview of Althusser's concept of a social formation, we have laid the groundwork for the remainder of the present chapter and its successor and introduced certain important themes of the book as a whole. One of the difficulties in reading Althusser is that his essays form a network of mutually supporting arguments (often cast in the form of polemics directed against positions that Althusser rejects) in such a fashion that it is difficult to assess his work except in its entirety and after taking at least one turn around it. We have completed this first turn and are now in a position to grasp the general outline of the Structural Marxist problematic and perhaps to appreciate the interesting solutions it offers to certain well-established criticisms of Marxist theory, particularly to the charge of economic reductionism. By means of the concepts of a mode of production and social class relations, it is


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possible to understand why an Inca high priest, a French feudal lord, a Soviet apparatchik , and an American industrialist may each be said to embody the interest of an exploiting class and be an active participant in an ongoing class struggle. Furthermore, by employing the concepts of a social formation and structural causality, it is not necessary to reach such an understanding by ignoring the importance of religion, vassalage, party membership, or private property in a particular society or by simplifying the historical complexity of particular social formations in order to render concepts of class struggle and economic determination applicable to them.


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Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
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