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From Marxism to Emergence: The Development of the Political Psyche as Evolving Perceptions of Intergroup Antagonisms

From Marxism to Emergence: The Development of the Political Psyche as Evolving Perceptions of Intergroup Antagonisms

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From Marxism to Emergence


From Marxism to Emergence: The Development of the Political Psyche as Evolving Perceptions of Intergroup Antagonisms David Holzmer Union Institute and University

From Marxism to Emergence From Marxism to Emergence: The Development of the Political Psyche and Evolving Perceptions of Intergroup Antagonisms As the swift and often disruptive growth of Western societies has continued to accelerate, it can be argued that individuals are more likely to view their lives through


norms of change and upheaval, as opposed to more traditional norms based on images of tradition and stability. For this reason, it could be argued that those models of political organization that take into account processes of human growth and psychological development will, over time, prove more enduring and resilient than those that do not. As one example, in thinking about how political agendas for social change are approached, we might consider how certain political theorists position the inner needs of the human psyche alongside, or even in front of more instrumental role as citizens within a political body. Chantal Mouffe (1992), for example, in examining the political community as a site of deliberative engagement recognizes the underlying self/citizen tension and asks “How are we to conceptualize our identities as individuals and as citizens in a way that does not sacrifice one to the other?” (pp. 29-30). Mouffe makes the point that once individuals begin to approach political life as an ongoing and dynamic negotiation between their own individual interests and that of the community at large, it then becomes incumbent that “the political community should be conceived as a discursive surface and not as an empirical referent” (p. 30). Her point here is that discursive engagement creates a reflexive space determined by an ongoing dialogue of demand and adaptation, whereas those political systems predicated upon fixed,

From Marxism to Emergence empirical standards reveal critical limitations that cannot easily accommodate the dynamic ebb and flow of human nature as it unfolds. It is my assertion that this ideological divide between a politics of evolving


processes and one of positivist ideals is underscored by a tension that runs to the very marrow of a political ideology’s conception of human nature. Such a conception, in turn, reflects a system’s capacity for addressing the shifting needs and values of its people. In their “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Marx and Engels (1848) declare that by overthrowing the bourgeoisie and shifting all political power into the hands of the proletariat, political and economic relations for oppressed classes could be, once and for all, normalized. This, they argue, would then lead to a new order where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (p. 21). Yet, perhaps owing to times in which they wrote, Marx and Engels do not share the individual or collective psychological implications of this hoped for “free development.” Rather, the authors infer that human flourishing would simply be assured once forces associated with political and economic inequities are permanently banished. While their wish to end the egregious suffering and exploitation of the oppressed is without question, their absolutist perspective and positivistic reasoning forces a fixed conception of the self, rather than one that is dynamic or evolving. Again, perhaps owing to the times, such a view effectively precludes opportunities for higher orders of human maturation or development (Cook-Greuter, 2005; Kegan, 1982, 1994), specifically that which results from the tension or striving common to systems, like capitalism, that today still offer potential for class mobility. In the pages that follow, I will consider Marx and Engels’ perspective and argue that while their initial liberating aims are acknowledged,

From Marxism to Emergence


over the long term, their intent was undermined, in part at least, by a critical shortfall of conceiving of the human psyche as fixed rather than dynamic and evolving. Influenced by their predilection for a static view of human nature, Marx and Engels call for the elimination of all sources of political and economic inequity including those that have the potential to prompt the kind of tensions described by Young (1996) who, in contrast, views such forces as the a source of political maturation. This devaluation of class antagonism as little more than a source of suffering and oppression highlights a central disparity between Marx and Engels’ thinking and that of more contemporary political thinkers like Young along with others like Mouffe (1992), Fraser (2007) and Fuchs (2004), theorists who seem to be unbound by the extremism often found in positivist belief systems. They are, instead, rooted in the postmodern imperative of individual and social fluidity and, as a consequence, tend to value social conflict and class antagonism as fertile catalysts within the evolving ecosystem of the political body. This essay is based on the premise that societies, in general, rest upon a dynamic interchange of antagonism and alliance—a mix that regularly fuels tensions of one sort or another. In order to further examine the related political implications, the argument that follows will be divided into three brief sections: the first contrasts one of Marx and Engels’ (1848) central arguments--that class antagonisms are a destructive influence upon society--with the point, held by more contemporary thinkers, that such tensions have the potential to act as generative forces within capitalist systems. Building upon this premise, the second section looks at Iris Marion Young’s (1996) alternative approach to society’s antagonistic nature. Here Young, departing from Marx and Engels, reframes the tensions underscoring the political life act as important drivers of

From Marxism to Emergence


deliberative action and discursive engagement—processes which, in turn, comprise the very fabric of democratic citizenship. The third section looks further into the importance of structural tension within a deliberative citizenry through the work of Christian Fuchs (2004), a political theorist and complexity thinker who views political systems as an aggregation of complex networks that self-organize to form a dynamic political ecosystem. Fuchs’ work supports the notion that class antagonisms—the same kind that Marx and Engels (1848) wished to abolish—are, in fact, a critical precursor to the development of higher-order forms of social organization. As a whole, while in no way wishing to excuse the many shortcomings and excesses of capitalist systems, I intend to critically support an argument that the inherent inequities and antagonisms found in such systems also offer potential benefits to individuals in the form of opportunities to engage in generative discourse which, in turn, can serve as a self-organizing precursor of individual and collective development. Section One: The Social As a Space of Antagonistic Engagement According to Marx and Engels (1848), the bourgeois era was incomparable in that it produced a constellation of economic and political forces that polarized society into two tightly interdependent yet highly antagonistic classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. According to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie, through its control of capital and production, had “agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and [had] concentrated property in a few hands” (p. 6). This inequitable distribution of resources had the effect of creating an “everlasting uncertainty and agitation” (p. 5) unlike anything ever before seen. Yet, without minimizing the exploitation and suffering experienced by millions, there is reason to believe that the structural tensions and

From Marxism to Emergence


antagonisms characterizing this period, were not unique to this era. For example, Fraser (2007)—who sees the constructive potential of class antagonisms—cites Eley (1992) who asserts that “The public sphere was always constituted by conflict”(p. 306). Fraser shares this perspective and observes that “every form of society has been based…on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes” (p. 493). To counter Marx and Engels, it may have been the case that class antagonisms were not the source, or at least the only source of class oppression. Viewed through the benefit of contemporary hindsight, it could be argued that other forces, at the time unrecognized by Marx and Engels, may have been at play. From today’s perspective it seems that the forces of antagonism that Marx and Engels (1848) identify are a far more common component of social life than Marx and Engels allowed.1 To point, a growing number of political thinkers share the perspective that the tensions underlying such antagonisms, if approached properly, can be leveraged to serve society’s greater needs and development. For example, Fraser (2007) makes the case that “in stratified societies, arrangements that accommodate contestation among a plurality of competing publics better promote the ideal of participatory parity” (p. 497). Fraser infers here that when the public sphere offers opposing groups opportunities to voice their concerns in such a way that each is heard by the other, an unexpected shift in each group’s thinking can occur--one that allows for a more mutually-satisfying outcome. Such shifts toward new and unanticipated points of view can occur when different outlooks are collaboratively examined in an atmosphere of, what Young (1996) refers to as, “mediated understanding” (p. 128). This process of transformation is explored in the next section.

From Marxism to Emergence


Section Two: The Transformative Potential of Antagonistic Engagement Advances in the social sciences, as well as in our understanding of human psychology, offer opportunities for more robust and resilient perspectives on the process of political engagement. For example, while Marx and Engels (1848) viewed class tensions as oppressive forces necessitating the overthrow of the dominant regime, more contemporary thinkers like Young (1996) see such tensions as a precursor of social progress. This difference appears to be related to radically contrasting views about social progress and the essence of human nature. While Marx and Engels aim to institute fixed economic and social structures rooted in absolutist principles, Young advances a conception of deliberative democracy that understands the political life of the community as an organic, evolving process. Rather than aiming, like Marx and Engels, for social progress based on fixed, state-mediated economic structures, Young calls for a discursive political process (p. 121) where “[d]ifferences of culture, social perspective, or particularist commitment [are] resources to draw on for reaching understanding in democratic discussion rather than as divisions to be overcome” (p. 120). Young’s stance is also supported by Mouffe’s (1992) approach to the dialogic engagement wherein “[t]he social agent is constructed by a diversity of discourses”. Such views are contrasted with Marx and Engels’ in their embrace of a far more dynamic conception of human nature where, as Mouffe points out “[t]he identity of…a multiple and contradictory subject is always contingent and precarious” (p. 28). Whereas the communist ideology seems to be deeply rooted in a fixed, positivist view of

From Marxism to Emergence the individual, Young’s and Mouffe’s ideas appear rooted in a notion of the self as an evolving, heterogeneous element of in more collaborative, unfolding whole. Whereas Marx and Engels (1848) believed that a political ideology can encompass all of society’s needs and concerns now and in the future, Young (1996)


believes that such a comprehensive view can only emerge through an ongoing process of discursive engagement of political actors meeting to express differences in a spirit of collaborative engagement. As Young explains “[b]y internalizing [a] mediated understanding of plural positions…participants gain a wider picture of the social processes in which their own partial experience is embedded” (p. 128). Young’s deliberative approach calls for a more developed and dynamic experience of the self than that found in positivist ideologies. Rather than a notion of the self anchored in a single, fixed view of reality, Young’s and Mouffe’s (1992) self is one capable of simultaneously embodying multiple divergent viewpoints. The underlying contrasts between Marx and Engels approach and these more contemporary theorists actually reflect different stages in the development of the human psyche. Such a notion of the self has been detailed by an increasing number of developmental psychologists including Robert Kegan (1994) who, in contrasting the earlier positivist perspective with a more advanced worldview he calls a multiperspectival orientation, points out the following: At the heart of the difference between [each worldview’s] construction of conflict are these two related questions about [the] self: Do we see the self…as complete and whole or do we regard the self…as incomplete, only a partial construction of all that the self is? (p. 313) Initially, it may seem that Kegan (1994) is attempting to confuse the reader by advancing some kind of contradictory conundrum or circular logic. It would seem he was

From Marxism to Emergence saying the less-developed self is complete while the more-developed self is partial. However, to avoid confusion, it may help to recognize that Kegan is not talking about the essential nature of the self as much as he is about how the individual balances


perceptions of their own autonomy with that of a more encompassing interdependence. In other words, Kegan is attempting to put forth the notion that individuals holding a less mature world view will consider their identity to be separate, complete, and wholly independent of the influence and perception of others; on the other hand, an individual with a more mature worldview—one Cook-Greuter (2005) refers to as “post formal”--will understand that their own experience is merely one piece of a much larger and more complex mosaic than anything that can be embodied by any one individual. As Kegan reasons, the more developed a person’s worldview, the more he/she will be able to intuitively grasp two things: the fundamental limitations of the autonomous self and the inherent interdependence through which each individual experiences a larger, evolving whole. This brief analytical excursion into the process psychological development, while somewhat abstract, could be said to get to the heart of the difference between the political theory of Marx and Engels (1848) and that of more contemporary political thinkers like Young (1996), Fraser (2007), and Mouffe(1992). While Marx and Engels saw the antagonisms between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as rooted in each group’s essential identity--and thus irreconcilable--the more contemporary theorists hold the view that such antagonisms represent lower-order misalignments of a larger, more unified whole. That whole, they argue, can be apprehended more clearly when the divided parties begin to recognize, through dialogue, how the other’s position forms a

From Marxism to Emergence


piece of a more complex and encompassing whole. Young, for example, asserts such an understanding when she writes that …difference is not total otherness. But it means that each position is aware that it does not comprehend the perspective of the others differently located, in the sense that it cannot assimilated into one’s own. There is thus something to be learned from the other perspectives as they communicate their meanings and perspectives, precisely because the perspectives are beyond one another and not reducible to a common good. This process of mutual expression of experience and points of view that transcend the initial understanding of each accounts for a transformation in their opinions. (p. 127) The next section offers a brief look at the emergent nature of this transformation. Section Three: The Self-Organizing Value of Struggle in Political Life As detailed above, one of the key differences between Marx and Engels’ (1848) view of political life and that of more contemporary democratic theorists is that the former approach class antagonisms as unyielding incongruities arising from the essential differences and separateness of two distinct parties; as Marx and Engels see it, such antagonisms can only be ameliorated through state control of production and capital--forces which, they argue, the bourgeoisie exploited to cultivate their own power and influence. In the case of the more contemporary theorists, there appears a different understanding of antagonisms as an enduring but generative force underlying the very nature of social life. For example, as Young (1996) frames it, political life in a pluralist society is based upon “citizens coming together to talk about collective problems, goals, ideals, and actions” (p. 121). For Young, this discursive engagement is a critical process for it functions as a permanent engine of society’s ongoing growth and development. As she states, “[t]his process of mutual expression of experience and points of view, that transcend the initial understanding of each, accounts for a transformation in their opinions” (p. 127). This notion of transformation through engaging the tension of

From Marxism to Emergence heterogeneous forces speaks to a view of political society as a complex adaptive


system, a seeming self-organizing network of diverse forces that is continually evolving through the self-sustaining process known as emergence2 (Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey, 2007). This view of societies as self-organizing systems is, like Kegan’s (1982, 1994) view of a dynamic and evolving self, a central feature of envisioning the political sphere as a site where structural tensions drive a process of self-organization wherein a larger whole is continually emerging through the dynamic interaction of lower-order components. Fuchs (2004) refers to this approach as the self-organization theory of political engagement and notes that this understanding of the political process “was conceived in opposition to the Newtonian world view that stresses the possibility of fully steering and predicting the historical development of systems” (p. 193). Fuchs contrasts this with the self-organizing view that maintains that “societies are based on a contradiction between actors and structures that drives forward their self-organizing development” (p. 188). Fuchs’ point is that the political structures of society will generate tensions between actors and the state and also amongst actors themselves. Such tensions, in turn, can often generate crises on both a small and larger scale; however such crises are the basis of society’s ability to continually grow and adapt to the needs of a dynamic and engaged polity. As Fuchs envisions it, “antagonisms result in phases of crisis where the future development is relatively open and depends on human agency and class struggle. (p. 201). Such struggles, the same that Marx and Engels (1848) wished to eliminate, are—as this paper has argued—an eternal, unrelenting seed through which societies continually negotiate increasing complex

From Marxism to Emergence


challenges and, in turn, develop the resources and insight to move forward and provide for both the well-being and existential unrest of its engaged citizenry.

From Marxism to Emergence Notes


1. While outside the scope of this brief paper, one point for future consideration is the possibility that such oppression was a product of a cultural milieu in which social mobility, still deeply rooted in positivist ideals of the feudal era, was far more constrained than economic mobility, which was benefiting dramatically from the technological innovations of the industrial age. 2. This is a topic, while also far outside the scope of this brief paper, that gets to the fundamental processes underscoring the dynamic evolution of self-organizing systems on both the individual and collective levels. This process is what unites Kegan’s (1982, 1994) notion of an transformative self with the self-organizing evolution of political systems as envisioned by Fuchs (2004).

From Marxism to Emergence Resources Cook-Greuter, S. R. (2005). Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace. Retrieved from http://panendeism.web.officelive.com/


Documents/9%20levels%20increasing%20embrace%20update%202007.pdf Eley, G. (1992). Nations, publics, and political cultures: Placing Habermas in the nineteenth century. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (pp. 289-339). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Fraser, N. (2007). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In S. During (Ed.), The cultural studies reader (488-506). London: Routledge Fuchs, C. (2004). The antagonistic self-organization of modern society. Studies in political economy, 73, 183-209. Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the communist party. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ Mouffe, C. (1992). Citizenship and political identity. October, 61, 28-32. Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. Leadership Quarterly, 4, 298-318.

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Young, I. M. (1996). Communication and the other: Beyond deliberative democracy. In S. Benhabib (Ed.), Democracy and difference: Contesting the boundaries of the political (120-135). Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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