The concept of Social Formations attempts to scientifically represent societies in their historical specificity, at a certain point in time, taking into account the complex relationships between the classes and various social categories they contain and also taking into account the complex relationships that these social formations have with other social formations, particularly at the stage of capitalist imperialist globalization.
In order to grasp these complex relationships, we are proposing some analytical tools within the realm of historical materialism (the philosophical problematic and ideological framework of the proletariat in its scientific approach to the theoretical development of its political line).
These concepts are the building blocks of a theoretical approach, giving us at first a global and general understanding of structural relationships at a formal-abstract level, which can then be applied to analyzing, “understanding” (meaning having relatively sufficient rational knowledge to enable crafting a line of practice that can be successful and further refined through practice) specific historical social formations. Much as formal-abstract geometrical models of various shapes (ellipses, polygons…) can help us ascertain certain physical characteristics of real-life objects, even though they have no real counterparts (there are no true circles or true square objects in reality…), formal-abstract societal models can help us understand the inherent tendencies of various social categories if these are properly ascertained and defined.
On a broad and general level, let us propose that social formations are composed of historically specific articulations of modes and forms of production, encompassing all levels of societal structure and practice (economic, ideological and political).
On a formal-abstract level, a mode of production articulates a fundamental, self-reproducing, coherent set of social structures. The necessary dialectical articulation of all three levels of societal structure and practice (economic, ideological and political) is inherent to certain historically dominant and fundamental modes of social organization, i.e. feudalism and capitalism. As such, modes of production prescribe three levels of social structures (economic, ideological and political) around which social agents are regrouped and polarized in complex, complementary and contradictory dialectical relationships, which in turn yield class struggles as the fundamental dynamic of these societies.
In order to delve deeper into these complex relationships, we must develop the analytical tools, the concepts that can accurately (relatively) represent the various categories of structures and practices involved. Let us look at three levels of social structures and practice. Because all these concepts are intertwined, interdependent and dialectically related, our presentation process cannot be linear; it has to more like a spiral, although we will try to anchor it to the general overall fundamentally determinant role of the economic level.
The economic level:
At the economic level, we can two structures that are specifically determined in each mode and form of production. We can distinguish a structure of economic relations and a structure of productive forces. Economic relations are the relations that engage economic agents it the process of production: the work process and the distribution process. In the work process, agents use their labor power to operate the means of production [tools on raw materials with the aid of resources (land, animal power, other forms of power…)] in order to produce goods. In the distribution process, agents are engaged in replenishing labor power, raw materials and resources, and the social distribution of any surplus production beyond what is necessary for replenishment of the productive forces (labor power and the means of production). These two activities and their corresponding structures, the work process and the distribution process, encompass the productive process. The main categories of social relations that are engaged in the productive process are operation (by operators who use the tools and perform the productive labor), supervision and proprietorship.
In the early stages of the development of historical materialism, it was thought that the productive forces played a fundamental role in their relationship to the relations of production in the process of production. Indeed, you have to have a surplus of seeds to plant before you can farm. It was also observed that class divisions in societies could not manifest themselves until the development of productive forces enabled a surplus of production that could then be appropriated by ruling elements. Further, in the transition between feudalism and capitalism, it was observed that a primitive accumulation of capital was necessary before industrial capital production could be launched. These observations led to the early theories that the socialist transition from capitalism was also predetermined by social abundance, which would enable socialist relations of production often summarized as “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. In turn, this theory influenced political lines, especially in the USSR, that privileged economic expansion and state-run enterprises that were regimented quite like capitalist ones, over the transformation of social relations.
Proletarian revolutionaries have since demonstrated that while the development of productive forces can play an over-determinant or principal role at certain stages, the relations of production hold the fundamentally determinant role in the economic structures. Indeed, it is the specificity of those relations of production that fundamentally characterize the process of production within each mode of production. For example, capitalist production is often described as the exploitation of dispossessed workers (“who have nothing to lose but their chains”) who are forced to sell their labor power, operate the work instruments and subject themselves to be exploited by capitalists who are the sole proprietors of the means of production. This simple definition highlights the key determinant role held by the relations of production, regardless of whether we are dealing with high-tech or low-tech manufacturing. It also shows that socialist transition is primarily determined by the transformation of those relations of production (often referred to as “freely associated”).
The ideological level:
In this context, the ideological level refers to two dialectically related structures. A structure of ideas, representations, concepts, rationalizations, theories, philosophies… and a structure of habits, customs, predispositions, comportments, aspirations, ambitions, prejudices, intuitions, convictions, emotions, beliefs, consciousness, social mores… (These structures reflect right-brain / left-brain distinctions in terms of how our behavior is rooted in “logic vs. emotion”).
As such, the ideological level deals with how these components determine human behavior and how we perceive and relate to our circumstances. On a global and general level, the structure of habits, customs, predispositions (…) holds a determinant role in its relation to the structure of ideas, representations, concepts, theories (…). In general, our perception of reality is most often determined by our prejudices and predispositions, and how we relate to this reality is rooted in our feelings toward it, although we can often invoke the power of reasoning or persuasion to influence these.
The ideological level is the “glue” that binds our collective behavior and conscripts it generally within the bounds of “socially accepted behavior”. Powerful ideological elements are required to ensure the reproduction of social relations and these are specifically adapted to the requirements of different modes of production.
Although ideology is the glue that binds societies, the economic level holds a determinant role in its relation to the ideological level. Indeed, core ideological elements are derived from the economic relations of production and are molded to enable their reproduction. For example, individualism and the belief in private property are core ideological elements of capitalism, and the principles of “equality” and “justice” are key elements in enabling the capitalist “free” market. These ideological elements are shaped and refined to serve different classes and therefore often exhibit striking differences within different class contexts.
For example, individualism in the capitalist class often represents a view that private ownership of the means of production is an entitlement of this class and affords capitalists with boundless prerogatives to preserve it. On the other hand, individualism in the working class is often associated with the drive to seek individual advancement through hard work and the deferred or anticipated social recognition hard work is believed to promise. Workers are told to “work hard to make it” whereas capitalists hold that they are entitled to surplus value.
In a feudal context, individualism is a completely different ideological element. For feudal lords, their entitlement is a birthright, hereditary, God-given and absolute, whereas for serfs or peasants, their individual ambitions are bounded by the acceptance of their unending servitude. The concept of justice has nothing to do with individual equality in a feudal context.
Certain ideological elements, such as individualism, can be seen to play a role in confining and subjecting the dominated classes to their social condition and as such can be seen as elements of a dominant class ideology. On the other hand, other ideological elements, such as a spirit of solidarity and combativeness, can be seen as enabling these dominated classes to struggle to free themselves. Generally, these ideological elements that are rooted in the class conditions of dominated classes and their resistance to this domination are most often dominated and repressed by their contradictory ideological counterparts in the dominant class ideology, such as individualism.
In class divided societies, we can recognize the existence of distinct ideological tendencies that correspond to specific class interests and we can refer to these tendencies as class ideologies and as class-consciousness inasmuch as they make up an ensemble of ideological positions that reflect specific class interests. Because classes exist only in struggle, class ideologies always reflect and are permeated by these struggles. Although we can refer to certain ideological elements and tendencies as being characteristic of certain classes and serving those class interests, the ideological realm is in constant flux and penetrated by contradictions within and between class ideologies. As such, the ideologies of different classes interpenetrate and clash as part of social practices, which in turn determine class-consciousness.
The political level:
In class-divided societies and modes of production, we can distinguish a political level. The political level is made up of two structures, each geared to and determined by the need for dominant classes to maintain, reproduce and guarantee their overall social domination. We can distinguish a structure of repression and coercion and a structure of juridical domination. These structures are only brought into existence in societies and modes of production where class antagonisms predicate their role. In societies and modes of production without class antagonisms, the ideological structure molds our behavior and is responsible for its reproduction. There is no social need for structured repression or coercion.
The structure of repression and coercion is responsible for the enforcement of class roles and it is fundamental in maintaining “social order” through the application of the juridical structure. The structure of repression defines the roles of subservience or control of various social agents to the institutions, mechanisms and instruments of repression and coercion.
The structure of juridical domination is the ensemble of social mores and customs, conventions, edicts, regulations, legislations, and codifications (charters, codes, constitutions, treaties…) that prescribe class roles. It is fundamentally anchored to and determined by the preservation and reproduction of the relations of production, and is dedicated to protecting the proprietorship of the ruling classes. As such, one of its most fundamental legislation (…) deals with the regulation of private property. The other fundamental axis of the juridical structure is the legislation (…) that deals with control of the structure of repression, state power. As such, the juridical structure prescribes the roles and rights of various social agents in all realms of social activity.
Both of these structures (repression-coercion and juridical) are embodied in the state-apparatus, and within the political structure, the structure of repression and coercion is fundamental and determinant. Political power is fundamentally the power to repress and coerce and is rooted in the control of the state-apparatus.
Because the political structure is fundamentally determined by its role in maintaining and guaranteeing the reproduction of the relations of production, it is characterized and bears the mold of those relations of production. For example, in feudal societies where proprietorship is a God-given birthright, feudal authority necessarily takes the form of absolute rule and feudal lords are judge and executors of their authority through their unquestioned control of the feudal state-apparatus. In capitalist modes of production, individual proprietorship is enabled through the activities of the “free market” and this also molds the capitalist political structure. Those individual equal rights that are necessary for the “free market” to function are guaranteed and arbitrated by the state. The state also guarantees the private ownership of the means of production, meaning the right of the capitalist class to extract surplus value from the labor of the proletariat.
We can also discern and understand the interrelationship of the ideological and political structures. The ideological structure plays a key and direct role in the acceptance of domination, subservience, coercion and the acceptance of repression as a means to maintain “social order”. The ideological structure also plays a key role in the resistance, rejection and revolt and rebellion against this domination, subservience, coercion and repression. We can thus comprehend the role of religion and religious institutions in providing the ideological glue necessary for the acceptance of feudal order. We can also understand the key role that ideology plays in the development of class resistance, revolt and rebellion.
Some characteristics of a feudal mode of production (abstract-formal model)
A feudal mode of production is based on specific economic relations of production (productive work, supervision and proprietorship exercised in the work process and in the distribution process) and productive forces (feudal lands and resources, and the labor provided by the feudal subjects). The fundamental characteristic of a feudal mode of production is the overall proprietorship exercised by the feudal lords through which this class plunders and appropriates the entire surplus social product through the extraction of feudal rent, perceived either in forced labor on feudal lands or through rent and taxes that are levied onto small producers. The feudal class consumes this surplus social product by either hoarding it as treasures or indulging in exorbitant luxury.
Because of the absence of competition and the limited roles of market and trade, the only drive for economic development is the drive to personally enrich the feudal lords and all the other economic agents are limited in their economic pursuits.
Economic development is even further limited when feudal economic relations take the form of sharecropping. In sharecropping, the direct producers, the operators, are also in the main the supervisors of the work process. However, their exploitation deprives them of the ability to enhance and develop the means of production, while the feudal proprietors are disengaged from the work process and tend to see it only as a cash cow. This makes small-scale subsistence sharecropping one of the most backward forms of exploitation.
Dogma prevails in the ideological world and religion serves as the underpinning of economic and political power. Feudal societies are rigidly compartmentalized in castes and social levels tied to birthright. This has produced historical periods (i.e. the Dark Ages) of stifling stagnation, constant wars between opposing feudal powers, political intrigues…
Historically, the growing roles of merchant capitalism and usury have been major factors in the decomposition and eventual domination of feudalism by the upsurge of capitalism.
Some characteristics of a capitalist mode of production (abstract-formal model)
A capitalist mode of production is characterized by commodity production (production of goods and services intended for trade in order to realize their trade value) and the exploitation of labor power as a commodity. Capitalist surplus value is extracted through the exploitation of dispossessed workers who are forced to sell their labor power to capitalists who are the sole proprietors of the means of production.
(much more to come)
On a formal-abstract level, a form of production represents a secondary and often dominated articulation of all three levels of societal structure and practice (economic, ideological and political) inherent to certain modes of social organization, such as small-scale production of commodities or small-scale subsistence production, that can co-exist and interact with modes of production. Social groupings organized around small-scale subsistence farming, fishing, hunting-gathering, cattle raising, animal husbandry… are forms of production that were prevalent in earlier times (in so-called “primitive” societies, some of which had social relationships far more harmonious than contemporary societies) where class antagonisms were not yet manifest (because there was no sufficient potential for surplus social production for a class of persons to appropriate), or they can co-exist in complex relationships with other modes of production. Social activity or social groupings organized around small-scale production of commodities or social activity organized around trade or other social services can also form the basis of forms of production, such as small-scale commodity production or craft or artisan communities or groupings…
As the productivity of industrial capitalist production expands beyond the capacity of capital to extract surplus value through the production of goods (limited profitability of industrial expansion) and beyond the social capacity to consume the goods it produces (limited buying power of the dominated classes, which limits their demand for goods), more and more of the workforce is forced into non-productive economic practices, often empirically referred to as a “service economy”. An “informal economy” also becomes more prevalent, whether through “illegal” practices (drug trade, cartels…) or through parallel small-scale means of “getting by” through any imaginable way of generating revenue: trade and production of goods and services, (Welfare, unemployment benefits…)… This is a phenomenon observable in both industrialized dominant capitalist social formations and in those dominated and deformed by imperialist domination where unemployment and underemployment also become prevalent.
This small-scale production of commodities and services that are traded can also be understood as a form of production that coexists with and is dominated by the relationships it develops with dominant modes of production. In fact, the social groupings determined by the social relations inherent in these modes of productions are further super-determined by the relationships with the modes of production. For example, small-scale commodity production creates social groupings of social agents who do not practice exploitation because they assume all the roles of workers, supervisors and proprietors. As such, these social groupings tend to manifest certain relationships to social structures of the dominant mode of production: on a political level, they tend to side with those forces who defend their individual property rights, on an ideological level, they tend to side with those forces who promote individual achievement, individual rights, individual recognition, entrepreneurship. These inherent tendencies, fundamentally determined by economic social relations, tend to place these social groupings in an intermediary level between dominant social classes and fundamentally exploited and dominated social classes. In this intermediary level, these social groupings are often most of the time aligned with the dominant classes because their social practices are enabled through the social structures maintained and directed by the dominant classes. But they can also be swayed to align in certain conjunctures with the dominated classes when the later are engaged in struggles to free themselves (and others) from the domination and persecution of the ruling classes that these intermediary groupings are also subjected to, although most often to a lesser extent.
Historically, because of complex interrelations in social formations, these intermediary groupings can result in the formation of different classes, fractions, layers and social categories: petty-bourgeoisie (often referred to as “middle class”), sub-proletariat, lumpen proletariat…