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Postmodern Political Economy 


The postmodern break from the 'modern episteme' has produced a rich spectrum of alternative paradigms proposing a radically criti­cal rethinking of modern discursive practices. Hypothesizing discursi­vely produced, incommensurable and irreducibly different categories of knowledge, the 'postmodern ethos' breaks from and poses a profo­und challenge to the 'modern logos' with its transtheoretic criteria for singularly objective scientific truths.  

Underlying the postmodern criti­que of the 'modern episteme' is a Nietzschean project of unmasking the illusion of rationally determinable, transdiscursively valid objective truths by deconstructing the very foundations legitimizing 'modern science' as an objective truth-seeking/generating enterprise. Neither the empiricists' unmediated experience nor the rationalists' self-suffi­cient reason can secure metadiscursive foundations for thought and action. From a postmodern standpoint, there are neither metadiscur­sive foundations to legitimize modern discursive practices, which sub­sume the grand intellectual vision of Enlightenment with its generic anthropocentric claims to establish criteria for transdiscursively valid objective knowledge, nor a universal and transdiscursive metalangu­age to articulate such knowledge. Ruling out the singular objective truths captured by the scientific statements of a universal and transdis­cursive metalanguage, the rhetoric of postmodern inquiry resorts to a plurality of language games with distinctive rules and truth criteria es­tablishing the intratheoretic validity of discourse-dependent state­ments. The postmodern thought game is one of pluralistic play of in­commensurable paradigms with no intertheoretic criteria for scientific truths. 

The deconstructive intrusion of the idea of incommensurability in­to the domain of scientific knowledge has profound implications for the future prospects of scientific practices. The deconstruction of the epistemic confidence in science as a privileged modern myth, a grand discourse claiming to have transdiscursively captured the singular ob­jective truths, opens the door to a rich array of new directions for sci­entific practices preaching a pluralism of praxis and thought as oppo­sed to the singularism underlying modern scientific discourses. The 'postmodern ethos' -with the vision of multiplicity it promotes, the epistemic freedom it brings about, and the creative agony it stimula­tes- may generate a broad matrix of new possibilities for a reconstruc­tion of the 'modern cogito' that may have already reached the limits of its creative impulse. 

Postmodern Marksism represents one such innovative possibility for a deconstructive reconstruction of 'modern thought'. The particu­lar deconstruction undertaken by the proponents of postmodern Marksism centers around the key Althusserian concepts of 'overdeter-mination' and 'contradiction' which, together, signify a discursive perspective that rules out essentialisms/foundationalisms of all kinds in epistemology and ontology. Any entity whether of ontic or episte­mic character is complexly constituted by all the influences emanating from every other entity. Entities 'only exist as effects of and by virtue of influences from all other similarly constituted entities' (Resnick and Wolff, 1988:52). There are no essential/foundational determinants of any social process or of truth. 

Refining and rearticulating the Althusserian notions of overdeter-mination and contradiction in such a way as to displace ontic and epistemic foundationalisms of all kinds, Resnick and Wolff develop a uni­quely Marksist postmodern discourse that traces its postmodern roots from such Marksist figures as Althusser, Gramsci and Lukacs back to Marx. Though they share with other postmodernists the spirit of the Nietzschean project in its relentless denunciation of the foundations legitimizing the illusion of transtheoretically valid, rationally determi­nable objective truths, their postmodernism differs from that of others not only in its Marksist class analytical content, but also in its distincti­ve emphasis on what might be called 'overdetermined contradictions' in their discursive analysis of knowledge and society. The notion of 'overdetermined contradictions', as a postmodern construct, both ac­counts for the postmodern nature of their Marksism and, at the same time, makes it differ from other paradigms within the postmodern fra­mework. Furthermore, being an organizing focus with a distinctive discursive privilege, it plays a key role in their break from the modern practice of economics. Hypothesizing a view of economic process existing in ceaseless change through complexly interwoven overdeter­mined contradictions, postmodern Marksist discourses break from and displace the equilibrium vision of economic phenomena underl­ying modern mainstream theoretical practices in economics. Howe­ver, as will be argued in this paper, despite the dominant anti-equilib­rium tone implicit in the methodology of postmodern Marksist works such as those of Resnick and Wolff, various notions of equilibrium are paradoxically present in much of their substantive analysis- hence ren­dering their break from the modern mainstream practice of econo­mics incomplete. 

Equilibrium and Contradiction; The Paradox 

Though the concept of equilibrium serves as a central organizing metaphor primarily within the conventional disciplinary matrices of the neoclassical research program, its use (role) in the metaphorical representation of economic phenomena, however unique and disco­urse-specific, seems to have transcended the boundaries of alternative economic paradigms. Abstracting from the complications associated with the issues of uncertainty/expectations and intertemporal/inters-patial connotations of the concept, elementary applications of the idea of equilibrium in contesting economic discourses have taken mainly the following forms, as exemplified by Milgate (1987:179): equilibrium is taken to signify a 'state of rest' from which there is no endogenous tendency to move away; stationary or steady states exhibit this kind of property. Or it is regarded as a 'balance of forces', as when, for instan­ce, it is used to describe the idea of a balance between supply and de­mand.  

Alternatively, it is thought of as that outcome which any given economic process might be 'tending towards', as in the idea that com­petitive processes tend to produce determinate outcomes. One can add to this list the refined definitions of equilibrium as solution con­cepts in its static and dynamic varieties as well as its game theoretic re-conceptualizations incorporating strategic interactions of the agents. However it is defined or conceptualized, the idea of (economic) equ­ilibrium, in general, signifies the existence of a harmonious state which is presumed to reflect the characteristics of the economic phe­nomena under consideration. 

The concept of contradiction, on the other hand, rests upon a per­ception of reality characterized by conflicts rather than harmony. The semantic content of contradictions in Marksian literature, in general, refers to conflicts, tensions and incompatibilities within (or among) entities 'pulling and pushing them in different directions' as to produce change(s) through a process of negation. With respect to the ti­me pattern of their existence, contradictions can be presumed to sig­nify either a 'temporary' or an 'ever-present' phenomenon. We will propose two different notions of contradiction to conceptualize this distinction: A notion of temporarily present contradictions posits an ontological posture of entities in which contradictions appear and di­sappear periodically. Contradictions are present when an entity is in a 'state of unrest' resulting from the conflicts, tensions and incompatibi­lities the resolution of which is presumed to bring about a 'state of rest' characterized by the absence of contradictions. That is to say, contradictions appear and disappear periodically as a 'state of rest' evolves into a 'state of unrest' which, in turn, evolves into a 'state of rest', exhibiting a cyclical pattern over time A notion of ever-present contradictions, on the other hand, hypothesizes a permanent/conti­nuous state of unrest signifying the relentless play of an infinite num­ber of factors ceaselessly changing the specific phenomena under con­sideration. Contradictions, from this perspective, are not of a tempo­rary character, rather they are 'ever-present' features of entities. 

The notions of contradiction articulated above relate to the idea of equilibrium in different ways. The contradictions of the 'temporary' kind are not necessarily incompatible with a notion of equilibrium, for the idea of a 'state of rest' common to the characterization of both could function as a point of reference for a correspondence between the equilibrium/disequilibrium states and the states characterized by the absence/presence of contradictions. A harmonious state of rest free of contradictions, for instance, could be interpreted as an equilibrium. The contradictions of the 'ever-present' kind, in contrast, are inhe­rently incompatible with a notion of equilibrium hypothesizing a state of rest where forces affecting an entity balance each other out. Every entity is presumed to be full of contradictions restlessly pulling and pushing it in a variety of often conflicting directions, hence making it impossible to reach a harmonious state of rest that could be interpre­ted as an equilibrium.

The notion of contradiction employed in postmodern Marksist works is of the 'ever-present' kind. Any overdetermined entity is full of conflicts, tensions and impulses generating a ceaseless process of change with no 'point of rest'. Equilibrium, in this ceaselessly chan­ging overdetermined web of contradictory impulses, appears to be an impossibility. However, paradoxical as it may seem, despite the anti-equilibrium methodology and the implicit, yet methodologically self-conscious, anti-equilibrium rhetoric of postmodern Marksist inquiry, the idea of equilibrium pervades much of the substantive postmodern Marksist analysis. We will selectively draw upon and interpret the post­modern reformulations of theory of value and theory of class to exemplify the scope (and the nature) of equilibrium thinking in this newly emerging research program. 

In their 1984-article in the Review of Radical Political Economics, Wolff, Callari and Roberts present a non-essentialist formulation of va­lue to offer an alternative solution to the transformation problem. Va­lue, in this unique formulation, is not to be conceived as the essence of price, rather as an overdetermined category constituted by the con­ditions of capitalist production as well as circulation. An explicit recog­nition of the complex interdependence between production and circulation -hence, between value and price- is the key to the authors' so­lution to the transformation problem. As opposed to the traditional vi­ew of transformation as 'the derivation of a single set of dependent va­riables (production prices) from a given set of purely production-de­termined values', the authors present a mode of transformation in which commodity values themselves are dependent variables which must be solved for alongside the other unknowns in the system. They proceed to articulate the unique features of their solution by showing how it does indeed coincide with Marx's own solution. 

Though the authors' intervention in the transformation debate has radically new qualitative dimensions, their formal/quantitative soluti­on to the transformation problem remains firmly tied to the conventi­onal equilibrium framework. The formal model presented in the paper is a static linear Marksian model with a transformation system to be solved for commodity values, prices of production and a uniform pro­fit rate given the values of the system's parameters such as technical coefficients of production, a real wage bundle, etc. The authors' for­mulation exhibits all the key properties of an equilibrium solution to the transformation problem: a uniform profit rate and stationary pri­ces as solution values of the system representing the determinate out­come of the competitive process.

However unique the authors' solution to the transformation prob­lem is, a quantitative solution of a static equilibrium kind does not cap­ture the qualitative dimensions of an overdeterminist formulation that emphasizes the mutually constitutive, contradictory and ever-chan­ging aspects of the value/price formation process. From an overdeter­minist viewpoint, features of static equilibrium solutions to the trans­formation problem- i.e. a uniform profit rate and stationary prices of production- must be seen as at best problematic, for the constant sta­te of 'flux' characterizing the overdetermined process of price forma­tion is likely to render the uniform profit rate and stationary prices of static equilibrium solutions unattainable both in the short run and in the long run. The problematic nature of equilibrium solutions seems to have produced a considerable discontent in the literature as well. Critics of different persuasions questioned the validity of static equilib­rium solutions by pointing out the problems associated with the uni­form rate of profit (Webber 1989, Nikiado 1978) and stationary prices (Naples 1989). There is a discernible tendency to move away from sta­tic equilibrium formulations and towards dynamic non-equilibrium re­formulations of the transformation problem. 

Exploring possible algorithms for dynamic, non-equilibrium soluti­ons to the transformation problem -such as the one suggested by Nap­les (1989)- may prove to be quite productive in weaving the overde-terminist insights into a coherent whole. What present formulations of the overdeterminist approach lack is the design of specific mecha­nisms/algorithms for a time-inclusive, dynamic interaction of the cont­radictory and mutually constitutive aspects of economic processes. It seems ironic for a discursive perspective privileging 'continuous chan­ge through contradictions' to remain within a static framework with no explicit dimension of time. Overdeterminist formulations of the transformation problem need to be moved away from the static equ­ilibrium framework so as to be situated within a time-inclusive, dyna­mic analysis of the contradictory and mutually constitutive relations among production, circulation and accumulation.

The deep-rooted influences of equilibrium thinking can also be ob­served in the overdeterminist reformulation of Marksian class analysis. 'Class', in its non-essentialist reformulation, refers to the overdetermi-ned processes of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus labor. The class process, like any and every other overdetermined social process, is presumed to have "no existence other than as the si­te of the converging influences exerted by all the non-class processes. All the other processes that combine to overdetermine it are its con­ditions of existence" (Resnick and Wolff, 1987a: 116). Being each ot­her's condition of existence, the relationship between class and non-class processes is one of mutual constitution preventing any one pro­cess from playing the role of being the essential determinant of the ot­her. Thus, 'class', in postmodern Marksist discourses, does not functi­on as an 'essence' but as a conceptual entry point at which one begins to enter into the analysis of social totality, hence of all social sites such as capitalist enterprises, households, etc. 

The formal class analytics of different social sites in Resnick and Wolffs discourse is captured by the social site specific 'class-structural equation' specifying the precise ways in which the process of distribu­ting the surplus (subsumed class process) secures its continued pro­duction and appropriation (fundamental class process)5. The class-structural equation of a capitalist enterprise, for instance, represents the equation-form of the relation between the appropriated surplus value (SV) and the sum of various subsumed class payments (SSCPs) made to secure the conditions of existence of surplus appropriation, i.e. SV=SSCPs

As long as the relation indicated by the equation holds as an equ­ality, the appropriated surplus in the capitalist enterprise is sufficient to make the distributions needed to secure the conditions of existence of the surplus appropriation, and hence of the enterprise's repro­duction. However, the point where the relation is transformed into an inequality -signifying the insufficiency of the appropriated surplus as compared to the needed subsumed class payments- signals a crisis for the capitalist enterprise that needs to be addressed through appropri­ate corrective measures restoring the equality. 

The discursive construction underlying the class analytical frame­work presented above lies, In significant ways, within the boundaries of equilibrium thinking. The specific formulation relating the funda­mental class process to its conditions of existence implies that the class structure of a social site is in a state of equilibrium when suffici­ent numbers of its conditions of existence are secured so as to ensure its reproduction. In other words, the equilibrium state is a state in which the social site continually reproduces its class structure. The class structural equation is nothing but the formal expression of an equilibrium condition describing the balance between the appropri­ated surplus and the subsumed class payments that need to be made to secure the conditions of existence of the appropriation of surplus and hence of the reproduction of the social site's class structure. A de­viation from the state of equilibrium -such as an inequality in the class-structural equation- represents a crisis (a disequilibrium) to be dealt with through appropriate corrective mechanisms restoring the equilibrium. This is precisely the logic of argumentation underlying Res-nick and Wolffs 'Tale of two crises in enterprise and households un­der Reaganomics' (1990) where they present a class analytical explana­tion of the ways in which Reaganomics represented a corrective res­ponse to the specific crisis of capitalist enterprises that developed ac­ross the 1970s due to the cumulative impact of large and rising subsu­med class demands exceeding the appropriated surplus value availab­le to meet them:

"Reaganomics had moved systematically towards correcting the en­terprise crisis it confronted by reestablishing an equilibrium between the production/appropriation of surplus value, on the one hand, and its distribution to secure conditions of existence, on the other. It ra­ised surplus value by driving down private wages, while it reduced the sum of subsumed class payments by lowering the federal govern­ment's demands for corporate taxes". (Resnick and Wolff, 1990:18-19). Though Reaganomics, in the authors' view, solved the enterprise crisis, it did so by plunging a completely different social site in the Uni­ted States -the households- into a parallel crisis. Reagan's assault on governmental social programs, shifting many household expenses back onto families, and the accelerated exodus of housewives into the labor market with falling wages resulted in a conjuncture in which the surplus produced by women within households became insufficient to secure the conditions of existence of the household's class structu­re (Resnick and Wolff, 1990:19-26). In other words, the Reaganomic so­lution restoring the equilibrium in capitalist enterprises created a chronic disequilibrium in households which, the authors argue, could well undermine the Reaganomic solution itself by producing a fall in workers' productivity, a change in mass consciousness, etc. That is to say, the solution that restores the equilibrium in enterprises tends to undermine itself by creating a contradictory dynamic that distorts the very equilibrium it is intended to restore. The reasoning implicit in the authors' argumentation thus displays a notion of equilibrium in a He­gelian mode, locating the equilibrium states within a contradictory process of change undermining the very equilibrium a social site is supposed to maintain. Yet, the mode of equilibrium reasoning emplo­yed by the authors, however Hegelian its manifestations may be, is in­compatible with the notion of overdetermination they articulate, for the logic of overdetermination, in its anti-equilibrium connotations manifest in what it requires to be contradictory and ceaselessly chan­ging processes with no point of rest, rules out the 'moments' of equ­ilibrium in all theoretically feasible overdeterminist characterizations of economic processes. 


The paradoxical coexistence of irreconcilable equilibrium and anti-equilibrium representations of economic phenomena in postmodern Marksist works signifies the difficulty of making a complete break from the modern practice of economics. Roots of equilibrium thinking are too deep to completely break free from. Nevertheless, however in­complete their break may be, postmodern Marksist discourses add so­mething unique and distinctive to a non-modern reconstruction of economic theory by articulating a notion of 'ceaseless change-provo­king' causality (overdetermination) undermining the metaphorical ba­sis of equilibrium reasoning and ruling out determinisms of all kinds. Distinctive contributions of overdeterminist formulations open up a new avenue for Marksist (as well as non-Marksist) research that could be further enriched and extended through a fruitful exchange with ot­her non-modern paradigms such as the non-equilibrium paradigm of Mandelbrot (1987) proposing an indeterministic stochastic reconcep-tualization of economic phenomena. Having already exhausted much of the innovative potential of the Althusserian episteme, the further development of postmodern Marksism appears to lie, in important respects, in a creative search for new ways to enrich and extend its Alt­husserian framework so as to incorporate, or relate to, other non-mo­dern research programs -such as the research programs of relativity, uncertainty, indeterminacy, and decentered multiplicity- whose dis­cursive contents seem to fit remarkably well into an overdeterminist framework.

Kaynak:Ahmet Kara



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