Totalities, dialectics and comprehensive analyses in my work

Note: All the publications in this section have been referred to in the preceding sections. Here I examine a methodology used in many of these publications.

A fundamental principle of Marxism, which has affected both the form and content of my writing, is that society is a totality. To enable social analysis, this totality has to be divided into parts, these parts into their parts, and so on. But the dynamics and significance of the parts can only be assessed through their place in the totality; and the parts construct each other – in the language of dialectics they are internally related (see Bertel Olman, Dialectics, 1993). This approach contrasts with the positivist or empiricist approach of mainstream social science: each aspect of society is a thing-in-itself, self constituted; their mutual interactions may then be investigated, but these are purely external relations. This produces superficial analyses and policies which fail (see Gough and Das, Introduction to the special issue on Marxist geography, Human Geography, 2017).

Accordingly, much of my work has sought -

* to place the subject of investigation within larger totalities;

* to examine diverse aspects of the subject and trace their internal relations;

* and to treat the subject comprehensively, in all its aspects.

For example:-

* The Politics of Local Economic Policy considers all types of local economic policy current in the rich countries since the 1970s; it analyses not only the economic underpinnings and logic of the policies but also their construction by social life, social reproduction and culture; and it considered all political strategies from neoliberalism through centrism to social democracy and socialism. In contrast, the vast majority of writing on local economic policy considers a small subset of policies, typically the most spectacular; considers only the ‘economic’ impacts of the policies; uses only social democratic criteria to critique the policies; and largely ignores class struggle. (See further the research theme ‘Local and regional political-economic governance in contemporary developed countries’.)

* Spaces of Social Exclusion explores poverty in the high income countries. It considers the whole history of policy towards the poor since the 16C. It analyses the construction of poverty by the melding of economic, social-cultural, and state processes and their internal relations, whereas most explanations of poverty concentrate on just one of these. It analyses the causes of poverty, and policies for it, at all scales from the home to the neighbourhood and locality to the nation to the globe. Whereas most texts on poverty have a social-democratic viewpoint (this is the politics of the authors and most of the intended audience), we take seriously other political strategies towards poverty from neoliberal to socialist. Thus we included a discussion of the far-right strategy of excluding immigrants (never discussed in poverty texts), which has underpinned the rise of neoliberal authoritarian populism. (See further the research theme ‘Poverty, disadvantage, and social exclusion’.)

* Work, Locality and the Rhythms of Capital (WLRC) is more comprehensive and relational than most writing on the labour process. The majority of the literature on the labour process has focused on particular workplaces or particular industries; WLRC analyses seven different labour processes across 14 industries. It examines ten types of labour process change, carried out both in situ and through relocation. This enables systematic comparison of labour process dynamics and thus a deeper theorisation of them. Most labour process literature focuses narrowly on the workplace, whereas WLRC relates labour process change to wider spatial scales: labour markets and premises/land markets within the locality, and competition within the industry at the local, national and international scales. It also considers a time dimension neglected in the literature, the 5-7 year business cycle, showing that this has major impacts on labour process change. It thus connects the rather insular field of labour process studies to other fields of economics and economic geography. (See further ‘Industrial geography, labour processes and industrial relations’.)

* Two substantial (20,000 word) theoretical works, on the spatial political economy of capitalism and flexible accumulation respectively, are also centrally concerned to relate processes and structures often treated separately. Both works relate processes at different spatial scales - territorial economies, industries, workplaces. Both are concerned not just with the logics of capital, the focus of the mainstream literature, but class struggle and working class agency. And both focus on the contradictions of the structures and processes analysed. Thus the papers on flexible accumulation go beyond the mainstream (institutionalist or regulationist) literature’s focus on the productive interdependencies of technologies, labour processes and industrial relations, by placing these within the dynamics of capital accumulation, class struggle, and crisis tendencies of ‘flexible’ agglomerations. (See further ‘Marxist geographical theory’ and ‘The present era of global capitalism, and the nature of neoliberalism’.)

* In my paper ‘Why Labour lost the British 2019 election: social democracy versus neoliberalism and the Far Right’ I analyse a single event by setting it within a long history and a global spatial scale, and by relating the obvious ‘political’ moments with economic, social and cultural ones. I discuss the effects of fifty years of neoliberal life on popular consciousness, and the consequent appeal of neoliberal populist xenophobia and a ‘strong leader’. I consider the history of Labour Party since 1970s and its consequent loss of support. All this shows the very tight constraints on the Corbyn leadership, and enables an assessment of the real degree of agency that it possessed. (See further ‘Brexit and British politics since 2015’.)

* Gay Liberation in the Eighties sets gay life and desire within the whole of social reproduction and the gender system, and in turn sets these within capitalist development. We thus explore the internal relations of sexuality, gender and class.

My work thus seeks to explore the dialectical relations between social processes which are usually seen as separate and discrete:

* economy/ social life/ culture/ politics;

* all spatial scales of the issue;

* all empirical forms and varieties of the subject;

* all political strategies towards the subject.

These forms of comprehensiveness and breadth then enable contradictions to be analysed, that is, the interdependence but also tensions between two aspects of the whole. For example, analysing all political strategies towards a subject shows how these are different projects for capital-labour relations, responding to the latter’s contradictions and to class conflict. Conversely, mainstream social science misses the contradictory character of society partly because of its narrow focuses. For me, the analysis of contradictions is the unique strength, and principle aim, of Marxism (see the research theme ‘Marxist geography’).

I have to add that comprehensive treatments reduce the number of readers: academics have little time to read these days, and they read papers far more than books and 20,000-word pieces. In addition, influential postmodernist thought reviles comprehensive treatments as ‘grand narratives’ and is interested only in differences, not unities. But comprehensive analyses are nevertheless essential for intellectual progress.