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The Science of History (Part 2)

[continued from earlier post...]

II - knowledge and power as contested

I want to return to the point I made earlier about historical materialism as being able to explain why both incorrect and correct interpretations can be made of socio-historical facts. In a very general sense, bad theory leads to bad explanations––as with my rhetorical example of the medical doctor, or in my real example from the Visual Studies Reader. In a more specific sense, though, incorrect explanations are caused by ideology.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels define ideology as:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force in society is at the same time its ruling intellecutal force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 67)
Thus, many incorrect explanations are the result of facts being arranged to reflect the ideology of the ruling classes. In terms of the recent wars in Iraq, for example, the ruling class ideologues drew a semi-coherent picture of a bloodthirsty dictator who needed to be stopped. Facts that revealed their hypocricy in this matter or their economic motivations, though available in numerous historical and journalistic documents including their own, were conveniently excluded from the public face of their war.

The knowledge industry, according to Marxism, possesses a class dimension. Knowledge can be mobilized in the interest of the ruling class or its antithesis. Unlike a pure Foucauldian explanation where there is nothing more than competing constructions of power/knowledge, none with any more value than another, historical materialism holds that there are class motivations behind the mobilization of knowledge and, also, that there are correct and incorrect positions as much as there are revolutionary and counter-revolutionary positions.

There is no expression of knowledge that does not express a social position and/or interest. Knowledge comes from human consciousness and our consciousness is formed by our interaction with the social. We are social animals, not isolated individuals, and we occupy certain social positions and possess certain social interests. Thus all knowledge exists in the service of the ruling or subordinate classes, consciously or unconsciously. There are conscious ideologues and unconscious advocates of the status quo and its opposite.

The historical materialist believes that expressions of knowledge that question the dominant ideology are the most critical because they are not constructed merely to ape business-as-usual. Moreover, historical materialism is concerned with a robust criticism of dominant ideology––a criticism that is true because it seeks to uncover the material and social forces, and the interests of the ruling classes, that enshrine the prevalent dogmas.

Here, once again, is where we historical materialists differ from the post-modern theorists who also claim to question the status quo. As aforementioned, there is no real coherent attempt in such theories to uncover the basis of domination and ideology. In Foucault’s theory, for example, power is seen as entirely nebulous, creating human subjects but not originating from these subjects. Thus the question “who’s power and for whom?” cannot be asked. Foucault’s notion of biopower possesses no origin and seems to exist beyond history and the social.

Everything in the Foucauldian worldview is a result of power––is constructed and composed by power––but, since the human subject herself is judged as nothing more than a power construction, in the end this power comes from nowhere. His ahistorical theory is akin to a bad student essay that starts with the uncritical claim “since the dawn of time power has existed” or “throughout history power has always existed.” And this is why post-modern theories are idealist. Once the flowery jargon and seemingly critical platitudes are understood, power is revealed as something that determines but is not determined by history and society. Such a notion of power is like a Platonic form: rather than being an historical contingency, human history is its contingency.

We historical materialists believe that power is not nebulous but social––economic and political. As Engels once wrote regarding the social theory of one Eugene Duhring, who also believed that power [or force] regimented all things social:
But let us look a little more closely at this omnipotent “force” [or power]… Crusoe enslaved Friday “sword in hand” [Engels is quoting from Duhring’s own example of Robinson Crusoes]… Where did he get the sword? Even on the imaginary islands of the Robinson Crusoe epic, swords have not, up to now, been known to grow on trees… If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole “force” relationship is inverted… So, then, the revolver triumphs over the sword; and this will probably make even the most childish axiomatician comprehend that force… requires the existence of very real preliminary conditions before it can come into operation, namely, nistruments, the more perfect of which gets the better of the less perfect; moreover, that these instruments have to be produced, which implies that the producer of more perfect instrumsnts of force… gets the better of the producer of the less perfect instruments of force… therefore, [force/power is] based on “economic power”, on the “economic situation”, on the material means which force has at its disposal. (Engels, Anti-Duhring, pp. 153-154)
Thus it is utterly irrational to talk about power as if it is not produced by something material.

Domination and resistance are produced by human beings throughout history rather than vice versa. Indeed, this “power” can in turn possess a productive potential; it can organize and affect human subjects and their history. In the end, though, it is nothing more than a human creation. As previously discussed: we create history and, in turn, the history collectively created by humans before us helps determine our consciousness. Our knowledge and understanding of the world is a result of our interaction with this world and the others who inhabit it, and a history that “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” And power/knowlege positions are accepted or rejected because of our class consciousness––what place in society we see ourselves occupying and/or supporting. Outside of this material basis, the Foucauldian notion of power is meaningless.