Monday, August 14, 2006


Of the social and the material

One of the most useful distinctions made by Marx is, I think, that between the social and the material. (This is emphasised in one of the early chapters of GA Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, from which I derive much of what follows).

The social: historically situated, specific to a particular time, place and social formation, contingent. The material: permanent, inherent to human nature or to nature itself, present in any and every place, time and social formation.

This conceptual distinction is particularly useful in thinking about "necessity". Our material needs exist always, are an inherent part of what it is to be human. Other needs are social. For example, it might be true to say that people genuinely need their car to get to work; but, not only is it obviously the case that people have not always needed cars, it's also true to say that people need not always need them in the future (if, say, society managed to rejig the organisation of work so that everyone worked from, or at least within walking distance of, their homes).

"Socially constructed needs", as I think Claus Offe has called them, can be said to be things you need, but that you don't need to need. (Note that this is quite distinct from a distinction between "objective" and "subjectively perceived" needs - the "socially constructed needs" I refer to aren't the result of any particular value orientation or state of consciousness of the people concerned - rather they are genuinely "objective" needs, but not necessary in the sense of inevitable or material.)

Thinking about the material and the social in this sense is a way of setting about identifying those aspects of social reality that are truly inevitable, in the sense that they will still be features of any future social (including socialist) formation, just as they were in previous ones. But it also helps one to identify other aspects which, though they do, in present circumstances, seem inevitable, and are experienced by individuals as objective necessities, are actually social/historical rather than material/permanent. Death, grief, disease, unhappiness, fear, confusion - these shall always be with us. The poor, to take but one example, need not be.

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