Ellen Meiksins Wood has delivered a sweeping broadside against the idea that Rational Choice Marxism (rcm) might hoist a standard around which the intellectual forces of the left could rally.footnote1 Many of her arguments regarding the limitations of rcm I accept (indeed, some of them I have voiced myself), others I reject, and yet others seem directed against a target I cannot recognize in myself, or any of the other writers whom Wood despatches with such unrelenting hostility.
Much of what I will say records the conclusions of a more detailed study into the agenda raised by Wood, forthcoming in Social Division.footnote2 In the course of writing the book, I have moved somewhat from the position I argued in the 1986 nlr article Wood begins by attacking, but I have not been taken over in the manner she ends up predicting: by a ‘contradictory amalgam’ of super-rationalist rcm with post-structuralist irrationalism marked by ‘political voluntarism, where rhetoric and discourse are the agencies of social change, and a cynical defeatism, where every radical programme of change is doomed to failure’.footnote3 Quite the reverse; I have found, sometimes to my pleasant surprise, that analytical Marxist theory is considerably stronger than I had previously thought, and that while rational-choice forms of micro-explanation remain an indispensable point of reference for radical social theory, they can and should be supplemented by other kinds and levels of social explanation. It is unclear whether this sort of adaptation would be congenial to Wood for, although the adaptation is motivated by many of the kinds of criticisms she levels against rcm, she nowhere in her article indicates what her alternative theory to rcm would be. The closest she gets to a statement of any alternative lies in her remark that ‘the most distinctive feature of historical materialism...is...a focus (such as that which characterizes the
To begin with, though, I am happy to second Wood’s complaint that rational-choice explanation suffers from the limitation that it does not explain what it treats as a presupposition of its explanations. And since the presuppositions often include (1) the preferences of the actor, and (2) the social context in which the actor acts, rationalchoice explanation often does not explain either the preferences or the social context of the actor.footnote5
But I deny this means that rational-choice explanations explain nothing. Wood’s criticism along these lines on pp. 48–9 smacks of everythingism. Everythingism is an unfortunate strain of Marxian thought which seems to hold, roughly, that you need a complete explanation of something before you can have any explanation of something. Thus ‘the compulsions of capital accumulation cannot be derived simply from the “optimizing strategies” of a rational individual with capital assets. These compulsions cannot be explained without reference to the competitive pressures of the capitalist market, indeed the whole historically constituted social structure which has made individuals in capitalist society uniquely dependent on the market for the conditions of their self-reproduction and hence subject to the imperatives of competition and accumulation.’footnote6 No doubt Wood’s point would stand, if one were aiming for an utterly exhaustive explanation of the compulsive phenomena in question, but to require such a complete explanation is to require something that is virtually impossible to obtain—either for rcm or any other kind of social theory, ‘conventional historical materialism’ included. In practice, we all get along as best we can—one bit of explanation at a time.
I tried to tackle this problem, no doubt very imperfectly, by taking a