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[Från The micro-politics of capital av Jason Read, sidorna 4-6.]

It is at this point that we can turn to Marx’s concept or problem of the mode of production and begin to understand it as a philosophical problem and not just as another name for economy or society. Marx used the term and concept “mode of production” to conceptualize the historically variable relation between a particular production of material existence, and a particular social order, including forms of consciousness. As Marx writes in a passage, which gives the most expansive presentation of this concept:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of the material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of a society, the real foundation [Basis], on which arises a legal and political superstructure [Überbau] and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

This famous, or infamous figure of the edifice of base and superstructure establishes the centrality of the mode of production for Marx’s thought of social relations, although it does so with some degree of ambiguity, or at least this ambiguity has been produced after the fact, so to speak, by the various interpretations of Marx’s work. If one wanted to read this passage for a definition of the mode of production, then it is unclear if mode of production designates simply relations of production or the effects of these relations (and forces) of production on a political and legal superstructure and the corresponding forms of consciousness. The mode of production is at one and the same time a limited concept, referring to the relations of the economy, and an expansive concept, referring to the totality of the social. In each case the position of consciousness or subjectivity is ambiguous: In the first, limited understanding it is not clear whether subjectivity can itself be included within the relations of production, while in the second, forms of consciousness arise from the base. The foundational role of the mode of production in Marx’s thought is well documented, from the polemics against left Hegelianism which introduced the concept in The German Ideology to Marx’s statements stressing the priority of the mode of production over class struggle (or the dependence of class struggle on a determinate phase mode of production). I could add, albeit a bit crudely, that without a thought of the mode of production as the material and historical ground of practice (including theoretical practice), Marx’s philosophy and political work collapses into moralism (capitalism is bad) and (incorrect) prophecy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the centrality of the mode of production in Marx’s thought, it cannot be reduced to a simple definition, its status in Marx’s writing is more of a problem, or in Althusser’s terms, a problematic: an apparatus for posing questions.

The problematic of the mode of production can at least be provisionally identified through four separate but interrelated elements: (1) The relation between consciousness (which may or may not be translated into more contemporary terms as either sociality or subjectivity) and production; (2) the relation between the different forms of “social practice”: economic, legal, technological, and politics, this “element” would have on each other; (3) a periodization of history into the different modes of production: communal, Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and capitalist, and the transitions, or revolutions, between these “modes”; (4) historicity, or, the tension of “reproduction” (or determination) and “dissolution” (or underdetermination) in every mode of production, and the coexistence of different modes at any point in history.

I should add that this list is perhaps drawn a bit too hastily. First, the neat numbered organization of the list overlooks the “uneven,” “incomplete,” and even conjunctural status of Marx’s writing. These different elements are developed to different degrees at different points in Marx’s writing in relation to different exigencies. For example, the problem of consciousness and its material production is not explicitly developed in much of Marx’s writing, beyond the early texts such as The German Ideology which are concerned with the critique of philosophy, while the third and fourth elements of the problematic make up the bulk of Capital, which is concerned with the historicization and transformation of (or the rise and fall of) the capitalist mode of production. Second, such a list in its linear presentation eclipses the fact that there may be an implicit tension between these different elements. To return to and expand the example given: Beyond The German Ideology, Marx’s texts arguably do not offer much in terms of a theoretical intersection of the production of consciousness and the transformation of the mode of production. The absence of such a relation in later texts, such as Capital which focus on the history and the historicity of the capitalist mode of production, would begin to suggest a possible tension between these two elements of the problematic. The materialist production of ideas and subjectivity would then have a primarily didactic role, appearing primarily in Marx’s conflict with German Idealism, and is glaringly absent from the examination of the formation and conflicts of the capitalist mode of production. Thus the analysis of the production of consciousness, or subjectivity, would appear to be most absent where the current conjuncture would require it the most: in the interworkings of the capitalist mode of production.