A Response to Paul Mason on Althusser and Anti-humanism

A central theme of Paul Mason’s 2019 book Clear Bright Future is his defence of Marxist-humanism. In two articles published in 2018, Mason outlined this project, arguing that a renewal of Marxist-humanist philosophy is essential for the left to avoid the pitfall of a “revived form of Stalinism” which he is concerned could “begin to insinuate itself in the absence of anything more coherent”[1]. Mason is highly critical of any ideas that could threaten the democratic, intersectional and humanist theoretical hegemony he wishes to establish. One of the threats he repeatedly addresses is Althusser’s anti-humanist Marxist philosophy, which he views as the root of a “profoundly anti-humanist” “postmodernism”[2]. He continually attempts to conflate this theoretical anti-humanism (based upon the critique of the notion of the human individual as a kingdom within a kingdom, divorced from nature in their absolute agency, but also endowed with a universal human essence or attributes) with the lack of care for human “well-being” associated with many of the other threats he identifies. One of the techniques employed by Mason in this process is the application of the label “anti-human” to anything ranging from the systemic racism sexism and homophobia of capitalism, to the statist ideology of China’s “Marxism”, the misogyny of 4chan users and alt-right ideology[3], in a way that directly associates theoretical anti-humanism with these ideas. The result is that a line of demarcation is drawn between horizontalism, intersectionality and humanism on the one hand and authoritarianism, economism, anti-humanism and fatalism on the other. I will demonstrate the falsity of this opposition through an explication of several of Althusser’s concepts which have had an important effect on my own rejection of Stalinist style politics, and which highlight the inadequacy of the humanist theory Mason advocates. In doing so I will demonstrate that anti-humanist theory is not inherently opposed to democratic, anti-Stalinist politics, as Mason suggests it is, and that it provides concepts that are useful in theorising such politics. However, it is first necessary to give a brief assessment of Mason’s comments regarding Marx, humanism and Althusser.

Paul Mason’s Anti Anti-humanism 

In a 2018 article titled Why Marx is more relevant than ever in the age of automation, Mason makes the claim that the only form of Marxism that can be relevant today is a “radical humanism”. He writes that, even as early as 1850, 17 years before the publication of Marx’s masterpiece Das Kapital, Marx had become a theorist of defeat, in contrast to the Marx of The Communist Manifesto who saw the abolition of private property and the triumph of communism as the “destiny” of the working class.  Mason then begins the process of attempting to equate the rejection of humanist philosophy with a general disregard for human well-being, counterposing an emphasis on “impersonal forces” and “permanent structures” (which is seemingly a reference to Althusser’s infamous structuralism) with the humanist Marx’s “almost Aristotelian concept of human nature, autonomy and well-being”. He suggests that Marxism is not a rejection of enlightenment humanism but its culmination. If this is true then all that is specific to Marx is lost within the humanist philosophy that, as Mason recognises, long preceded him, in much the same way that Althusser’s “structure” was accused of subsuming and negating the specificity of individual subjects. Marx becomes merely one of the “expressions”, as Mason puts it, of enlightenment humanism[4]. He gives the example of Frida Kahlo, describing how her artistic freedom and self-expression were dampened by the “Marxism of the Moscow textbooks” [5]. It proves easy for Mason to make the case that humanist philosophy is the only route to individual liberation when the other option is presented as the bureaucratic statism of the Soviet Union, but when compared to theorists such as Foucault or Deleuze, whose ideas could not be further from the statist authoritarianism of Stalinism but who, alongside Althusser, reject the basic tenants of humanist philosophy, the argument loses the emotional appeal upon which it relies. In a second article written later in 2018 on the role of Marxism in the Labour Party, Mason continues the process of associating anti-humanist philosophy with Stalinist politics. He calls for the “horizontalist, democratic and humanist left” to be more assertive in rejecting “machine politics”, the implication being that anyone on horizontalist, democratic left must necessarily be humanist. In contradiction with this implication, he names Antonio Negri, a philosopher in the same Marxist/Spinozist anti-humanist tradition as Althusser, as one of the key thinkers of the horizontalist, autonomist left. Negri’s development of Spinoza’s concept of the “multitude”, which Mason draws upon in attempting to move beyond the “proletariat” as the subject of political change, is a rejection of the concept of a unifying “human essence”, necessarily implying difference and heterogeneity. Mason nevertheless argues that left political theory should take as its basis the humanism of E.P Thompson demonstrated in his critique of Althusser. He quotes Thompson’s claim that there are “two Marxism’s”, one a “tradition of active reason”, which Mason describes as a “libertarian, democratic and self-questioning tradition” and the other “a tradition of theology”, with Althusser being in the latter camp.[6]

Althusser is first discussed at greater length in a Chapter of Clear Bright Future titled The Anti-Humanist Offensive, in which Mason makes the case that post/anti-humanism has legitimised neoliberalism by rejecting humanism. He correctly acknowledges Althusser’s influence upon “postmodernist” theory, arguing that Althusser’s rejection of the humanist concepts of “subject, human essence and alienation” formed it’s basis. Again, he attempts to associate theoretical anti-humanism with “anti-human” values such as authoritarianism; he writes that Althusser’s theoretical intervention functioned as an “attack” on attempts to “humanize” official Soviet ideology, ignoring the ways in which it offered a profound critique of Soviet ideology[7]. Mason follows the, until recently largely unquestioned, structuralist-functionalist reading of Althusser’s philosophy, writing that, whilst Althusser’s philosophy had the allure of appearing “radical and defiant”, this appearance masked a philosophy of order which “had turned Marxism into something very close to the orthodox social science that dominated universities in the 1970s”. He also quotes the notorious “history is a process without a subject” line, ignoring (most likely unintentionally) the full phrase “history is a process without a subject or goals”, of which the systematic repression has long served to render invisible Althusser’s combination of anti-teleological as well as anti-subjective tendencies which shatter conceptions of him as purely functionalist. Mason accuses Althusser of “fatalism”, writing that Althusser stated that “any struggle against class oppression is ultimately part of the mechanisms that reinforce oppression”, citing no textual evidence for such an accusation.  He also argues that Althusser had to endorse authoritarian vanguardism to offer an “escape hatch” from the functionalist prison of the endless reproduction of the structures of capitalism that he had built. According to Mason, for Althusser only “the party, armed with Leninist theory, can force open the door of history at opportune moments, bringing to the working class new ideas from outside its experience”[8].

In contrast to Althusser’s anti-humanism, Mason in an earlier chapter outlines his understanding of the only Marx he believes is relevant today, the humanist Feuerbachian Marx. He writes that this Marx argued that humans have a “biologically given purpose” which is “to set themselves free”. For Mason, this biological reductionism is Marx’s key lesson. He focusses on the concept of “species-being” which Marx inherited from Feuerbach, describing how for this Marx, communism meant “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being”. This is a Marx whose thought is deeply embedded within a teleological framework of Origins and Ends; the return of man to a time when he was united with his true essence forms the Marxist equivalent of the Garden of Eden, a perfect originary moment uncorrupted by inequality or conflict which is totally divorced from real history. The only Marx relevant today is apparently not the Marx who theorised concepts such as “class, capital, laws of motion” which Mason later paradoxically claims allow us to “make sense of material reality” and ensure “the knowability of the world”[9]. Mason wants us to embrace this early Marx who, in his own words is concerned with “destiny”, “telos” and “species-being”, whilst also rejecting “the doctrines of inevitability that had become associated with official Marxist philosophy”.[10]

Economic Determinism and Structure

Mason’s conception of Althusser’s theory as a structuralist-functionalist Marxism, revealed in his depiction of this philosophy as a fatalist theory of order, draws upon a certain conception of “structure” present in Althusser’s work. Althusser himself paradoxically offers an excellent description of this conception of structure in the form of a rigorous critique of the synchronic/diachronic dualism (according to which the synchronic operates as an ahistorical structure to which the diachronic, the genesis of history, is subordinated) which underpinned its usage in much of the structuralist theory of the time. He argues that this “widespread distinction between synchrony and diachrony” indicates that the Hegelian “conception of history and of its relation to time is still alive” and that “The synchronic therefore presupposes the ideological conception of a continuous-homogeneous time”. He describes how the synchronic/diachronic dyad is “a reflection of the conception Hegel had of the type of unity that constitutes the link between all the economic, political, religious, aesthetic, philosophical and other elements of the social whole”.[11] This dualism therefore retains the distinction between essence (synchronic) and phenomena (diachronic) in its unification of the heterogenous phenomena of the social whole. Whilst it is distinct from humanism, in that it always operates “behind the backs” of individuals rather than being grounded in human consciousness, it merely translocates rather than denies the humanist concept of the invariable “human essence”, explaining away the genesis of history as well as the heterogeneity of the various levels of society in favour of their unity as products of an ahistorical “structure” à la Levi Strauss. As such, this conception of structure has rightly been referred to as “humanism with a structural face”[12]. Strangely, Althusser used the concept “latent structure”, which necessitates the same distinction between a trans historical structure and the genesis of real history, in both For Marx and in the first edition of Reading Capital. A “latent structure” exists “behind” its effects and as such retains the essence/phenomena duality which Althusser is so critical of, again serving to negate the material specificity of the heterogenous social whole. With the help of Pierre Macherey, Althusser did come to recognise that this “latent structure” was, like the Hegelian social whole, a “spiritual whole”, in that it necessitates looking beyond the materiality of nature in order to explain it, and references to it were removed in subsequent editions of Reading Capital[13]. However, the text remains marked by its usage and by a certain language that pertains to it; coinciding with the concept is a range of structuralist vocabulary used by Althusser, which can go some way to explaining the continuing reception of Althusser’s work as a straightforward application of outdated structuralist concepts to Marxism. For instance, the notion of individuals as mere “bearers of structures” seems to reinforce this concept of a homogenising structure which reduces concrete individuals to a set of invariable positions that remain identical regardless of the differences between the individuals who fill them. 

Althusser’s alternative, and far more radical, conception of structure is already present in For Marx but is only explicitly defined in Reading Capital. The explication of this concept makes visible a rigorous critique of the “mechanistic economism” of the official Soviet ideology that Mason attempts to associate Althusser with and brings to light a very different Althusser from the infamous structuralist-functionalist. It stands in absolute opposition to the “flattening out” of the various levels of society into a homogenous unity. This concept of structure is therefore unlike the ahistorical “spiritual whole” posited by both humanist philosophy and the concept of the “latent structure”, in which the specificity of individual phenomena is negated. He argues that this conception of the social whole is the result of a concept which Marx practices the truth of, but which is never present in his discourse. This is the concept of “structural causality” which Althusser describes as “a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects”[14]. This conception of structure can be seen in Althusser’s description of Marx’s social whole as being characterised by its complex combination of “levels or instances which are distinct and relatively autonomous” and within which no form of production can be “reduced to the primacy of a centre, any more than the relation between the elements and the structure can be reduced to the expressive unity of the essence within its phenomena”[15]. Unlike, the Hegelian conception of structure employed by both the synchronic/diachronic opposition and the concept “latent structure”, this is a structure that does not exist behind or anterior to its effects but instead is its effects, understood in the heterogenous diversity of their pure positivity rather than negated into a unity. In a way, this concept of structure is self-denying as it disappears into its effects just as Spinoza’s god disappeared into his creation.  Although Althusser retains the vocabulary of “wholes” and “structures”, he empties them of their usual meaning in much the same way that he would continue to use terms like “ideology” in a manner that blinded many to the novelty of his theory. What is left is a decentered combinatory of singularities, each of which simultaneously determines, and is determined by, the others. There is no longer any “synchrony” or “essence” to serve as the external principle of their immanent distribution. 

Whilst Althusser only names this “structure which is immanent in its effects” in Reading Capital, it is present in For Marx in a form that reveals with more immediacy its relevancy to Althusser’s critique of economic determinism. In the essay Contradiction and Overdetermination written in 1962, Althusser uses the example of the Russian Revolution to reject the teleological necessity of revolution. He argues that the revolution cannot only be explained by the “general contradiction” between capital and labour “embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes”, but instead by the specific accumulation of contradictions across the various levels of society that formed the revolutionary historical conjuncture in Russia[16]. For Althusser, understanding the relative autonomy of non-economic factors, such as the political relations between various groups within the Russian bourgeoisie, or the geography of Russia, was essential in reading the historical conjuncture[17]. Althusser therefore rejects economic reductionism by refusing to reduce the diverse “circumstances” and “currents” that constitute the revolutionary moment to the secondary expression of a general class divide. In doing so he places the emphasis on the exceptionality and contingency of the circumstances of the revolutionary conjuncture, rather than their adherence to a general law of development which could never explain the specific conditions that made revolution possible in that moment in Russia and not in other countries or moments. This reading of the revolutionary conjuncture is in stark contradiction to any functionalist conception of the social whole, whether it be Hegelian or structuralist, describing a contingent encounter of dynamic social forces which can never be harmonised or “flattened out” into a unity. According to this conception, change at the level of the economic is not enough to transform society; culture will not simply reflect the “economic base”, it is something that has to be actively intervened in. In the context of this structure which is imminent in its effects, the individual “bearers of structures” are no longer subsumed by the structure but are the active site of an immense accumulation of social forces which determines them. This allows us to think the concrete individual overdetermined by their specific intersection of race, gender and class positions which is irreducible to some abstract and innate “human essence”, anonymous structure or general economic contradiction.

Moreover, this conceptualisation of difference within a given conjuncture, in the co-existence of various levels within a social whole, makes it possible to theorise the contingency of any social moment. Capitalism becomes a radically asystematic chance encounter between social forces, as it is described by Marx in his chapter on “primitive accumulation”. It is no longer an expressive totality, a closed system that asserts its “intentions” by endlessly reproducing its own structure “behind the backs” of individuals and which would inevitably encounter the problem of the beginnings and ends of structures that the synchronic/diachronic model runs into. As Althusser argues in his later work, it is the contingency of any encounter, in this case between the relatively autonomous levels of the social whole, that ensures that “every encounter is provisional even when it lasts”, and that it will therefore not hold forever[18]. Whilst this conception of structure allows us to theorise the possibility of an “outside” of capitalism by emphasising the contingency of any system (in stark contradiction to the fatalism of which Mason accuses Althusser), it also emphasises the complexity of social change, which can no longer be the result of a linear and inevitable development; the conditions for change are not lying dormant, waiting for their correct moment in the development of History, they have to be created. Capitalism will not simply be negated, the conditions of the possibility of its replacement must be produced. Revolutionary change is therefore necessarily rare and difficult but at the same time, in a certain sense, always possible due to the contingent nature of the “encounter” of singularities that constitutes capitalism. Whilst this still leaves Althusser open to accusations of teaching “the impossibility of resistance” as Mason writes, in the context of the largely unrivalled dominance of global capitalism that has characterised the past three decades, it would be insulting to be told that change is straightforward or easy. We need to understand what we are up against in order to effectively resist it and the concept of relative autonomy makes it possible to conceptualise the dynamic character of capitalism. In the face of this dynamism, we need concepts that allow us to theorise difference and change, rather than ahistorical norms which can tell us nothing about the new or complex.

Not only does Althusser offer an alternative to the notions of causality and structure which underpin economic determinism, he also demonstrates that Hegelian historicism/humanism in fact shares these notions with the “mechanistic economism” of official Soviet ideology. In a brilliant passage of Reading Capital, Althusser argues that both humanist philosophy and Stalinist economic determinism are grounded in an “expressive” causality which is both teleological and maintains a distinction between phenomena and essence which explains away the specific and concrete in favour of the general and abstract. Althusser begins the chapter Marxism is not a Historicism by giving an overview of the history of Hegelian-Marxist humanism/historicism (which is more sympathetic than one would expect from the arch anti-humanist and member of the “theological” Marxist tradition tradition that Mason describes[19]) before proceeding to critique it. Towards the end of the chapter, he writes that “by flattening the sciences, philosophy and ideologies into the unity of the relations and forces of production, i.e., in fact, into the infrastructure”, and that “from the standpoint of its theoretical problematic, and not of its political style and aims, this humanist and historicist materialism… rediscovered the basic theoretical principles of the Second International’s economistic and mechanistic interpretation”[20]. For Althusser, humanism, economic determinism and the synchronic/diachronic opposition present in “humanism with a structural face” all operate by, whether explicitly or implicitly, reducing the complex heterogeneity of the various levels of society to an “essence” which is prioritised over its “phenomena”, whether this essence is conceptualised as “the human essence”, “the economic base” or a “latent structure” which supersedes its effects. Regardless of the political motivations that spawned them, each is inadequate to conceptualise the dynamism of modern capitalism. All of these concepts do away with concrete individuals in favour of ahistorical abstractions. However, whilst it would be wrong to say that such an individualism was ever the focus of Althusser’s work, the concept of a structure which is entirely imminent in its effects makes possible a “Spinozist individualism” which is able to recognise the forces that work on individuals without subsuming them in the process.

As a result, it becomes strangely apparent that that which is most humanist in Althusser is that which forms the basis of the fatalist philosophy of order that Mason is so critical of: a teleological and ahistorical “humanism with a structural face” which, like humanism, must negate the materiality of individuals in order to affirm their unity. Moreover, Mason repeatedly acknowledges the utility of the concept of “relative autonomy”. In Postcapitalism, he writes that “Only in the 1970s, when the idea of ‘relative autonomy’ arrived in Marxist economics, did the discipline begin to understand that not all layers of reality are a simple expression of the layers beneath them”[21], highlighting his apparent rejection of the Hegelian concept of “expression” (which elsewhere he strangely refers to as the basis of “the materialist conception of history”[22]). Furthermore, in Clear Bright Future he argues that “relative autonomy” was “Althusser’s main contribution to social science” in that it showed the “loose and confusing way in which these cause-and-effect mechanisms sometimes work”[23]. This demonstrates that that which is most anti-humanist in Althusser’s work is also that which Mason is most in agreement with: the notion of “relative autonomy” which shows Althusser at his furthest from “humanism with a structural face”. Mason fails to recognise that the conceptualisation of “relative autonomy”, which he understands was vital to the development of non-economistic Marxist theory, was made possible only through a critique of the humanist philosophy he advocates. It was not a positive side effect of an otherwise useless anti-humanism, but instead the result of the key distinction between anti-humanism and Hegelian humanism: the presence of the concept of a structure which is immanent in its effects.

Authoritarianism and Knowledge

Mason sees Althusser’s work as legitimising a Marxist-Leninist style authoritarianism in which a “vanguard” elite rules over the uneducated masses. He argues that Althusser showed that “Though the workers can’t be the subject of the historical process, the party, armed with Leninist theory, can force open the door of history at opportune moments, bringing to the working class new ideas from outside its experience.”[24] However, this notion of an elite unproblematically passing down knowledge to the masses is entirely antithetical with Althusser’s materialist conception of knowledge. In the introduction to Reading Capital, Althusser outlines his critique of empiricism (understood in the broadest possible sense). For Althusser, an empiricist epistemology is one that identifies the “object of knowledge” with the “real object”. According to this view, one acquires knowledge through simply “abstracting” it from objects by capturing their real essence. This entails a process of negation, for instance to read the essence of man in its “immediate transparency” involves moving beyond the specific and diverse materialities of concrete individuals in order to find their shared essence. Instead, Althusser argues that knowledge results from ones theoretical problematic seeing its own “reflection” in objects[25]. For instance, the concept of “fruit” is not “abstracted” from apples and oranges in a process that reveals their shared “essence”, which in turn shares an identity with the object of knowledge which is “fruit”. Instead, one inherits the concept of “fruit” and applies it to apples and oranges. Accordingly, one’s knowledge of the world is historically and socially contingent rather than a given. In theorising the distinction between the “object of knowledge” and the “real object”, Althusser theorises the possibility of differential knowledge and of the production of subjectivities in opposition to the “closed circle” of empiricism which cannot account for difference in knowledge between individuals except in terms of “psychological defect”. This is a wholly ahistorical approach which inevitably measures all knowledge against a set of “obviousnesses” that transcend time and place and which are either correctly identified or inexplicably missed.

 In line with his rationalist distinction between the “real object” and the “object of knowledge”, Althusser states that “ideology has no outside”.[26] This conception of ideology is opposed to concepts like “false class consciousness”. To a certain extent, “false class consciousness” does overcome the empiricist reduction of the mechanism of knowledge to the presence or absence of an attentiveness in an individual to certain trans-historical obviousnesses; it grounds the “consciousness” of individuals in their class position with this “false consciousness” arising as a result of the ideological apparatuses of capitalism. However, whilst this “false” knowledge is granted a mechanism of its production, the true “class consciousness” that it obscures still exists in terms of an “obviousness”. “Class consciousness” therefore lies dormant, waiting for the “false class consciousness” to be superseded, and as such pre-exists its own discovery. As a result, it retains the qualities of an “empiricism”, as the “object of knowledge” and the “real object” ultimately come to be identified with one another, thus obscuring the conditions of the production of the “object of knowledge” in its autonomy from the “real object”. The relevancy of “false class consciousness” to the question of the intellectual “vanguardism”, of which Mason accuses Althusser of legitimising, is that it implies that ideology is something that can be overcome. Vanguardism relies on this concept to portray certain elites as having escaped ideology. Unlike the uneducated masses, these elites have reached the point of Absolute Knowledge in which their ideas come to share a one to one correspondence with reality. As such, there is no need to question the effects or legitimacy of their ideas which are guaranteed truth in their having overcome ideology. In contrast to this, Althusser conceives knowledge as having material effects and as being irreducible to anything outside of these effects. Such a conception makes it necessary to judge concepts based on their corporeal effects within a given conjuncture, rather than by their degree of identity to a transcendent norm. This promotes careful reflection upon the effects of ones ideas rather than grand claims to absolute truth which so often result in despotism. 

Althusser further elaborates this materialist theory of knowledge in his Ideology and Ideological State Apparatusesessay. He describes how “An ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practice or practices. This existence is material”[27] and argues that an individual’s ideas “are his material acts inserted in practices”.[28] This conception of ideology as being entirely immanent in material practices and the apparatuses and rituals which produce them shifts our focus from individual “consciousness” to bodies and the relations of force which affect them. Ideology does not first take place in minds which then consciously express it in the form of bodily actions; following Spinoza, the mind/body dualism is rejected as minds are no longer understood as zones of interiority but instead as part of the body, and always-already in some form of corporeal motion. Individuals are no longer absolute centres of initiatives but instead are caught up in chains of cause and effect. This means that ideology cannot be dispelled or altered through a simple rebuttal of ideas from a privileged position outside of the lived experience of the masses occupied by intellectuals/politicians etc. Instead, the relations of force that govern the material practices of the public which constitute ideological apparatuses can only be disrupted and/or replaced by an equally material counterforce. The extent to which theory/ideas take hold over the masses its dependent on the nature of the material conjuncture in which they are inserted.[29]

Moreover, the ideas of academics and politicians are not formed in isolation but are also necessarily shaped by mass ideology. However, this cannot be understood in the Gramscian sense, according to which theory is merely the “direct expression” of a homogenous organic ideology which is part of the “expressive unity” of a given historical age[30] and which Althusser is also critical of.  Instead, theoretical production is affected by a heterogenous set of forces which, whether they are aware of this process or not, shape the problems which intellectuals respond to. Theoretical production becomes one type of practice among various others which form the conjuncture in which it intervenes. Each practice causes and is simultaneously caused by all the others, with none being reduced to the secondary expression of any other. Ideology therefore never simply reflects theory but neither is theory a simple expression of mass ideology. Each has a determining effect on the other but retains a relative autonomy. As such, intellectuals and politicians etc hold no privileged position in a materialist theory of ideology. For instance, in Althusser’s aforementioned Contradiction and Overdetermination, the role of the Bolsheviks was of course necessary to the success of the 1917 revolution. However, it’s success was simultaneously contingent upon the “vast accumulation of contradictions” present throughout the heterogenous levels of society which constituted the “conditions of existence” of the relations of production that resulted in a revolutionary rupture.[31] Again, this theory of ideology does not make social change easy or straightforward, making Althusser susceptible to Mason’s accusation of fatalism. However, having an adequate “idea of the idea” gives us a better chance of producing alternatives by making visible the corporeal effects of ideology rather than obscuring with concepts that focus on interiority and consciousness.

Human Agency and Individualism

One of Mason’s problems with the “postmodernist” theory he argues has its roots in Althusser’s Marxism, is what he describes as its “fragmentary” effects. Mason argues that as “postmodernist” theory has “disparaged the idea of universal human attributes” it is inadequate to combat individualist neoliberal ideology.[32] However, Mason’s alternative to this is another form of individualism, one not grounded in an understanding of individuals as the products of their specific material circumstances, and as such irreducible to any homogeneous group identity, but instead in “human agency”. This humanist individualism detaches individuals from any determining circumstances, on the one hand emphasising their absolute freedom, whilst also tethering them to a universal and abstract “human essence”. By declaring individuals as free, this form of individualism is unable to conceptualise systemic oppression. Moreover, it is inadequate to combat neoliberal ideology, precisely because it is the primary assumption of this very ideology. It is in fact the “Spinozist individualism” rejected by Mason, which denies individual freedom in favour of examining the network of causes that makes possible any individual action without subsuming the singularity of the individual in the process, which offers a real alternative to the methodological individualism of neoliberal ideology. Accordingly, Althusser’s critique of individual agency is all the more relevant in the context of the present conjuncture.

Althusser, following Spinoza and Nietzsche, argued that individuals are declared free in order to be held morally accountable for their own actions. For Althusser, we are always-already within a certain circumstance which determines our behaviour. There is no part of the individual which pre-exists the conditions they are born into and thus no possibility of prior consent. As such, where consent does exist, it is produced retroactively by these conditions rather than pre-existing them as their condition of possibility. In his Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses essay, Althusser outlines the notion of the “subject of imputation” in his description of the process of “interpellation”, writing that “the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection”.[33] The subjects “freedom” is produced retroactively by the order to which they were already subjected in order to legitimise its continuing coercion. In this “circle of subjection”, the “subject of imputation” is therefore held morally responsible for the conditions of their own subjection.[34] The demand that those suffering under the weight of a systematic attack on public services, that has characterised the past four decades, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is an excellent example of this. If all individuals are equally free on account of their shared humanity, then oppression can be nothing but a poor choice that can be opted out of with enough effort. Hence the neoliberal concern with “equality of opportunity” over “equality of outcome”. This logic of freedom can only result in self-congratulatory praise for the powerful and moral condemnation for the oppressed. It relies upon the idealist notion of the ontological separation of mind and body; ideas first exist in the mind in the form of “consciousness”, understood as an uncaused-cause and centre of initiatives which directs the body to act.

A similar critique to Althusser’s can be found in the early Marx whom Mason wants to ground his defence of human agency and human rights in. Marx critiqued legal rights as declaring individuals as legally free and equal in order to disguise their real circumstances of oppression and inequality. In On the Jewish Question, Marx distinguishes between “political emancipation” and “human emancipation”. He argues that “political emancipation”, which is a form of legal emancipation that involves the state guaranteeing equal rights for individuals so that none are legally differentiated according to their property, religion etc, does not necessarily result in “human emancipation”, which would entail reducing actual rather than legal inequality within society. Moreover, he argues that “political emancipation” in fact presupposes the continuing power of property, religion etc within civil society. In other words, announcing individuals as politically and legally free does not free them, but instead merely obscures and legitimises the conditions of their unfreedom.  Like Spinoza, Marx therefore sees right as co-existent with power. The right to not be legally bound by ones relation to property in no way entails property no longer playing a role in ones life. On the contrary, declaring individuals as free from “the distinctions established by birth, social rank, education, occupation” and as legally equal increases the effect of such distinctions by considering the individual in total abstraction from them and as such creating the illusion of a meritocracy.[35] The subject who is the product of their economic and cultural conditions which their actions presuppose is forgotten in favour of the free individual abstracted from any determining circumstance. Just as Marx reveals that the secular state does not oppose religion but in fact presupposes its continuing influence in civil society, the neoliberal state that withdraws itself from the economy in the name of freedom does not oppose  the continuing effects of economic inequality but presupposes them, resulting in austerity measures backed by a discourse of individual responsibility. Neoliberalism has weaponised the concept of free will and as such cannot be rebutted through the same logic of freedom that essentially takes as a given Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society. The “Spinozist individualism” of “postmodernist” theory instead understands individuals not as detached from society or any determining conditions, but as part of the effectivity of a structure which is immanent in its effects, a network of singularities from which the individual can never be abstracted but which they are never subsumed by. The emphasis on “individual liberation” that Mason believes will be lost in rejecting humanism is therefore retained. Moreover, whilst the emphasis on individual struggles irreducible to a more primary human struggle emphasises their singularity in order to comprehend their specificity, these individual struggles always occur within a social and historical context from which they cannot be divorced, meaning that individual liberation necessitates a collective liberation which must be based on affinity rather than identity.


[1] Mason, P., 2020. Labour’S Radical Left Must Fight The Rise Of A New Machine Politics. [online] New Statesman. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/09/labour-s-radical-left-must-fight-rise-new-machine-politics&gt; [Accessed 5 April 2020].

[2] MASON, P., 2020. CLEAR BRIGHT FUTURE. [S.l.]: PENGUIN UK, Page 220.

[3] MASON, P., 2020. CLEAR BRIGHT FUTURE. [S.l.]: PENGUIN UK, Page 22.

[4] This is in stark opposition to Althusser’s reading of Marx. Whilst his conception of Marx’s “epistemological break” may have over simplified Marx’s relationship with Hegelian philosophy as he later admitted, it emphasised difference between Marx’s texts rather that their sameness, inn a way that prioritised the diverse and irreducible materiality of the texts and that rejected any recourse to a super-textual, unifying “essence” more primary than the pure phenomena of the texts themselves.

[5] Mason, P., 2020. Why Marx Is More Relevant Than Ever In The Age Of Automation. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2018/05/why-marx-more-relevant-ever-age-automation&gt; [Accessed 6 April 2020].

[6] Mason, P., 2020. Labour’S Radical Left Must Fight The Rise Of A New Machine Politics. [online] New Statesman. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/09/labour-s-radical-left-must-fight-rise-new-machine-politics&gt; [Accessed 5 April 2020].

[7] MASON, P., 2020. CLEAR BRIGHT FUTURE. [S.l.]: PENGUIN UK, Page 220

[8] Ibid., Page 221.

[9] Ibid., Page 222.

[10] Ibid., Page 180.

[11] Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, Rancière, J. and Macherey, P., 2016. Reading Capital. Brooklyn: Verso, Page 184.

[12] Macherey, P. and Montag, W., 1998. In A Materialist Way: Selected Essays. London: Verso, Page 5.

[13] Ibid., Page 7.

[14] Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, Rancière, J. and Macherey, P., 2016. Reading Capital. Brooklyn: Verso, Page 257.

[15] Ibid., Page 185.

[16] Althusser, L., 2010. For Marx. London: Verso, Page 99.

[17] Ibid., Page 100.

[18] Althusser, L., 2020. Philosophy Of The Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87. London: Verso, Page 174.

[19] Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, Rancière, J. and Macherey, P., 2016. Reading Capital. Brooklyn: Verso, Page 203. Althusser writes that the initial wave of humanist Marxism was a “vital reaction against the mechanism and economism of the Second International” with “real historical merit” and that “the recent renaissance of this interpretation after the Twentieth Congress’s denunciation of the dogmatic errors and crimes of the ‘Cult of Personality’ has real historical sanction”. Such comments are evidence of his materialist method of reading which judges philosophy according to its effects as opposed to its degree of adherence to an external norm.

[20] Ibid., Page 217.

[21] Mason, P., 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future. London: Penguin, Page 82.

[22] Mason, P., 2020. Why Marx Is More Relevant Than Ever In The Age Of Automation. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2018/05/why-marx-more-relevant-ever-age-automation&gt; [Accessed 6 April 2020].

This is how Mason describes a quote from Marx which claims that the political is the “expression” of the economic.

[23]  MASON, P., 2020. CLEAR BRIGHT FUTURE. [S.l.]: PENGUIN UK, Page 221.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, Rancière, J. and Macherey, P., 2016. Reading Capital. Brooklyn: Verso, Pages 25, 35 and 36.

[26] Althusser, L., 2014. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso, Page 192.

[27] Ibid., 184

[28] Ibid., 186

[29] Montag, W., 2013. “Rancière’S Lost Object: A Review Of Althusser’S Lesson” | Louis Althusser | Ideologies. [online] Scribd. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/155413761/Warren-Montag-Ranciere-s-Lost-Object-a-review-of-Althusser-s-Lesson. Page, 150.

[30] Althusser, L., Balibar, E., Establet, Rancière, J. and Macherey, P., 2016. Reading Capital. Brooklyn: Verso, Page 210.

[31] Althusser, L., 2010. For Marx. London: Verso, Page 100.

[32] MASON, P., 2020. CLEAR BRIGHT FUTURE. [S.l.]: PENGUIN UK, Page 220.

[33] Althusser, L., 2014. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso, Page 269.

[34] Montag, W., 1995. Marxism And Postmodernism: Essays In The Althusserian Tradition. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, Page 94.

[35] Marx, K., n.d. KARL MARX, “On The Jewish Question”. [pdf] Available at: <http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/Class%20Readings/Marx/Marx,%20_On%20the%20Jewish%20Question_Edited%20version%20from%20Tucker.pdf&gt; [Accessed 14 April 2020].

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