Dialectical Critical Realism: 4 – Bhaskar’s Four Planar Theory

I have come to the fourth of an indefinite series of blogs on Roy Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism. You could open a book on how many more might follow. This effort dips deeper into Bhaskar’s attempts to resolve or, in his words, to ‘generalize, dialecticise and substantialise the transformational model of social action’. He wants to incorporate the complexities of power and conflict. He is in pursuit, in short, of dialectical critical realism as sociology, politics and ethics. As in previous blogs I draw variously on Bhaskar’s own texts and the exegeses of Creaven and Norrie (see refs in blog one).

Bhaskar’s offers a what he describes as a ‘naturalistically-grounded four planar’ theory of the possibilities of social being:

‘Social life, qua totality, is constituted by four dialectically interdependent planes: of material transactions with nature, inter-personal action, social relations, and intra-subjectivity’ (Bhaskar).

This four planar theory leads him to write of ‘the social cube’, a complex multi-dimensional articulation of ensembles of structure-practice-subject in process. How does this complement and add to his transformational model of social action? It will be recalled that the original version emphasized that ‘social structure is a necessary condition for, and medium of, intentional agency, which is in turn a necessary condition for the reproduction or transformation of social forms’ (Bhaskar). Creaven summarizes its limitations as follows:

‘The difficulty with this model is that it is rather too abstract or generalizing to offer much theoretical purchase on the complexity of structural conditioning and the problem of the construction of human material as subjects, actors and agents of social reproduction/transformation.’

What the four planar model recognizes, and allows for, is that these processes occur on a number of interlinked levels of terrains. To clarify:

‘For Bhaskar, it is the dialectical interaction of agents with structural properties and/or practices on these analytically distinct planes (material transactions with nature, i.e. co-operative labour to produce subsistence; social relations between agents, i.e. as incumbents of structured ‘positions’ and ‘practices’ of the social system; interpersonal relations, i.e. interactions between individuals as subjects rather than as agents of positions or institutional roles; and intra-subjective relations, i.e. internal relations of the subject, such as the self-construction of personal and cultural identities), which constitute the social cube.’

Bhaskar again: ‘we have dialectics of unity and diversity, of intrinsic and extrinsic, of part and whole, of centrification and peripheralisation, within partial totalities in complex and dislocated open process, substantively under the configuration of global commodification’ (Bhaskar).’

As with society, individuals are in this revised transformational model of social action presented as stratified and relational entities, ‘as existentially constituted by their rhythmics or geo-histories and the totality of their relations with other things’ (Bhaskar).

At this point a distinction between ‘power1’ and ‘power2’ becomes relevant. Power1 relations refer straightforwardly to ‘the transformative capacity intrinsic to the concept of agency as such’. Power2 encompasses a more sociological notion of power. Power2 denotes social relations that govern the distribution of material goods, political and military authority and social and cultural stratification via class, gender, ethnicity and age. Power2 relations are those that enable agents to defend their sectoral advantages by prevailing against either the covert wishes and/or the real interests of others. Bhaskar wants to emphasize here that power is enabling/empowering as well as repressive.

‘The significance of power2 relations, argues Bhaskar, is not that they grant agents the capacity to exercise control over the social and natural environments, the capacity to intervene causally in the world, which is an unqualified good, but that they organize or structure an uneven distribution of the capacity of human agents to exercise transformative power over their conditions of existence, and so restrict the autonomy an free-flourishing of people subject to their governance’ (Creaven).

Also salient here is Bhaskar’s political-moral theory, in which ‘concrete singularity’ (or the free-flourishing of each) is the relational condition of ‘concrete universality’ (or the free-flourishing of all). He sees this as ‘an imminent and tendential possibility … necessitated by structural conditions … (though) held in check by global discursively moralized power2 relations’. He announces a (contingent) progressive tendential movement of humanity towards ‘eudaimonia’, or universal emancipation.

How to make this clearer? We must return to Bhaskar’s definition of dialectic as the process of ‘absenting absence’. Dialectic entails ‘absenting most notably of constraints on desires, wants, needs and interests’. In a sentence, the dialectic of freedom is powered by the interface of absence and desire, since ‘absence is paradigmatically a condition for desire’ (since desire presupposes lack) (Creaven).

Humanity, Bhaskar maintains, is bestowed with the ‘inner urge’ to struggle against lack ‘that flows universally from the logic of elemental … need, want’; and this is manifested ‘wherever power2 relations hold sway’. Creaven writes:

‘This is because power2 relations function to negate the needs of most human beings (whether basic survival needs or those defined by wider cultural horizons), giving rise to a desire for freedom from ‘absenting ills’.

He continues:

 This marks a welcome departure from the ‘mutual constitution’ model of structure-agency linkages of the original transformational model of social action, whereby structures govern all intentional acts of human beings. This is because it is clear here that Bhaskar wishes to invoke the enduring needs and interests of human nature to naturalistically ground resistance to those social relations that would deny or curtail or limit those needs or interests. It is this process of struggle against absence or lack that offers the tendential possibility or even geo-political impulse of moving ‘from primal scream to universal human emancipation’. Since ‘every absence can be seen as a constraint, this goal of human autonomy can be regarded as implicit in the infant’s primal scream’’.

The unfolding dialectic of absenting absence on freedom – as agents struggle against successive forms of power2 relations – ‘in tandem with expanding cultural definitions of needs and wants constructed in part through this struggle’, nurtures a logic of more inclusive and encompassing definitions of and aspirations towards freedom (Creaven).

Although he characterizes the dialectic of freedom as a process of acting to absent constraining ills, Bhaskar does not draw the line at what Creaven calls ‘practical agency energized by material interests’. Rather he extends the analysis to embrace communicative action more generally, including moral or ethical judgements:

‘Insofar as an ill is unwanted, unneeded and remedial, the spatio-temperal-causal-absenting or real transformative negation of the ill presupposes universalizability to absenting agency in all dialectically similar circumstances. This presupposes in turn the absenting of all similar constraints. And by the inexorable logic of dialectical universalizability, insofar as all constraints are similar in virtue of ‘their being constraints’, i.e. qua constraints, this presupposes the absenting of all constraints as such … And this presupposes in its wake a society oriented to the free development and flourishing of each and all, and of each as a condition for all, that is to say, universal autonomy as flourishing … So the goal of universal human autonomy is implicit in every moral judgement’.

So, for Bhaskar, ‘to act is to absent is to presuppose universal human emancipation’. This adds up to a dialectic of universalization in practical and ethical interests. In recognizing and acting to negate the constraining ills that threaten their own ‘concrete singularity’, actors are committed to recognizing and acting to negate the constraining ills that threaten others who share common situations and a common human-social-being-in-nature (‘concrete universality’). In this way Bhaskar ‘naturalistically grounds his moral realism and ethical naturalism ‘in a four-planar theory of changing and changeable human nature-in-nature’, by virtue of which human interactions objectively presuppose trust, solidarity and mutual aid. (Creaven).

Not that this makes the future predictable. At the beginning of Bhaskar’s dialectic is non-identity, at the end open, unfinished totality, along with the unity-in-difference of consciousness and being. But that is enough for now.



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