Emerging Countries:
The Marxism-Institutionalism Controversy
Sergio Ordóñez
Institutionalist Critique ( ...continuation )

The solution that institutionalism offers to the duality between structure and agent does not involve assimilating one with the other, as authors such as Giddens propose,10 but rather it assumes the existence of a stratified ontology and emerging properties. A stratified ontology implies the concept of reality as a whole (complex) composed of evolving strata tending towards diversity: physical, molecular, organic, mental, human individual and society. What separates one stratus from another is the existence of emerging properties in the higher stratus that relate directly to a lower stratus, due to the fact that the existence and nature of such properties depend on elements of the lower stratus, but their qualities are not reducible nor can they be predicted based on properties of the stratus. This solution concerns how complex systems emerge in a higher stratus based on a multiplicity of relative simple interactions in the lower stratus.11

Psychology is the emerging property that links the human individual with the society, that is, the agent with the structure, and explains how the structure influences an individual’s behavior in the process of “habituation,” while an individual can generate his own behavior, independent of the structure. Moreover, this behavior is potentially capable of producing new structures insofar as it is repeated and shared by other individuals. Psychology is a discipline that studies the existence of an individual’s mind in a psychological substrate that would give the individual the possibility to produce new and evolving responses in the face of changing conditions, independent of existing structures (although the conditions of these structures serve as a reference).12

Marxist Response

The Marxist response to this set of theoretical-methodological questions can be divided into two levels: (1) the responses that result from the original Marxism, developed by Marx himself; and (2) a more concrete and developed response, based on Gramsci’s development of Marxism.

From the point of view of the original Marxism, the institutionalist critique is legitimized by the fact that Marx did not completely articulate the theory, not due to a lack of a vision concerning the need to make explicit the theoretical-methodological coherence within his concept of the historical-social reality and the theory of action that “would have brought with it subsequent development of his thinking,” given that his intention to do so was clearly evident in his work plans for Capital, his defining work, but rather due to the fact that his work was not concluded, as a result of physical limitations that prevented him from finishing it.

In keeping with the cognitive method of going from abstract to concrete to achieve concrete thought, as a combination of multiple and diverse determinations, Marx based his original plan for Capital on the study of the most abstract aspects and structures of capitalism in terms of production, and later addressed material conditions of existence in three fundamental classes, and the consolidation of political relationships in the State, before proposing the study of exterior commerce and the global market (Rosdolsky, 1978). That is, the process of going from abstract to concrete implied the need to go from the structural methodological plane to the concrete and super-structural realm of material conditions concerning class warfare and its mediation by the State.

But despite the unfinished general research plan that we have, on the one hand, we have a “structural” Marx for whom agents are effectively the personification of social relations and count as such and the capitalist is nothing more than a personification of capital and the worker that of the salaried employee. On the other hand, we have the “super-structural” Marx, for whom individuals determine their own history, seeking to achieve their own desires by class warfare, and there is not necessarily methodological mediation that coherently links both analytical planes.13

From this perspective, for Marx, there are apparently two contradictory approaches that explain the historic movement: first there is the contradiction between existing productive forces and social production relationships, where a moment arrives when they stop being development forms and become obstacles to subsequent development, opening the way for a social revolution (Marx, 1858). In other parts of his work, class warfare is the “motor” of history (Marx, 1848).14 But in reality, both approaches are perfectly compatible if we consider the research method that Marx’s work is based on, insofar as the set of existing production relationships provides the material conditions for the existence of social classes, their relationships and their warfare. The contradiction between productive forces and existing social production relationships is expressed through class warfare, that is, in the terrain of political, ideological, cultural and institutional super-structures. This process takes on specific and concrete historical forms, where the individuals considered as subjects with free will try to achieve, together with the aspirations of their class, specific individual aspirations that, taken as a set, may lead to new and higher production relationships. In other words, new social structures.

11 The molecular facet, for example, is derived from the physical aspect, but achieves its maximum expression in the organic part, in the same way that the organic part is derived from the molecular facet, but achieves its maximum expression in the mental aspect, and so on and so forth. However, the chemistry of carbon (organic) is the emerging property that links the organic and molecular aspects, in the same way that neurons (nervous tissue) unite the organic and mental facets. The emerging properties of evolutionism can be compared by what is referred to as the passage from quantitative to qualitative.

12 In this sense, there would be a parallel aspect between the social response and the natural response of the individual, which corresponds to a close relationship between psychology and genetics: the capacity to generate new responses would be determined by the psychological substrate of the individual, separate from his effective behavior, in the same way that the relationship between genotype (genetic substrate) and phenotype (effective physical characteristics) acts in the realm of genetics.

13 An index of the terms for which integration between both theoretical-methodological planes should be carried out is Marx’s double assertion in the Prologue of 1857: “A society never disappears before all of its productive forces can be developed, and the new and higher production relationships are never substituted until the material conditions of the existence of these relationships have been incubated in the very heart of society” (Marx, 1857). This double statement implies the possibility that while the old society can still have development of productive forces, the material conditions for the existence of a new society have already been created, in other words, the possibility for a relative autonomy for the subjects acting in the face of the determining the structure. Thus the construction of mediation categories that allow the passage from one plane to another is necessary, a work that Gramsci would carry out later, as we will see further on. This corresponds with the distinction that some authors have made between the “theoretical” Marx, who moves on the structural level, and the “political” Marx, who moves in the realm of action, a distinction that constitutes a derivation of the two methodological planes. As previously indicated, Hodgson recognizes this duality in Marx.

14 The Communist Manifesto begins with the phrase: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” (Marx, 1848: 111).