Andy Blunden June 2009
The following schema maps how a complex whole develops to a new level of complexity through internal differentiation and re-integration.
Let us suppose we have a system or Gestalt, some ‘organism’ capable of acting in a number of different modes but lacking in internal differentiation, e.g., a society which is capable of producing a surplus and exchanging this surplus with another society, by, for example, people taking their surplus to a nearby market town every spring. Another example, the raising of children, the exercise of justice, and so on. Or there may be a function and a class performing this function, which may differentiate into a number of distinct functions, formerly taken as varieties of a single function. In the natural world, we have primitive organisms in which the cells have not differentiated in the course of reproduction, such as coral.
Or we may be talking of an organism in respect to perception, speech, thinking, moving, fighting, and so on. In this case, as a result of biological evolution, the organism already has specialised organs for given functions, which operate according to their own functional construction, and are not subject to modification. For example, an animal has a specialised memory system which is capable of retaining impressions, in a way which is biologically fixed and given.
In the examples cited, the organism is already the result of a process of differentiation. Following the example of trade, the taking of products to market, bargaining with the merchants, and going on to trade all around the year in special premises, taking the material to other communities, and so on, are developments which presuppose the formation of a special class of merchants, that is of social differentiation. There is a general law here: whenever a whole (Gestalt) is obliged to carry out some specialised activity then a special class of people will differentiate itself out to perform this activity. Along with this differentiation is the self-consciousness of that activity in the form of the consciousness of those individuals who make it their vocation to perform this function. By this route the concept of the activity enters the community, with its own range of artefacts (including language), forms of activity and so on, which constitute the material substratum of the self-consciousness of the class. When this self-consciousness is objectified in the practices, and institutions, language and so on, of the whole community, the concept of this activity is integrated into the activity of the whole. In this sense, the Gestalt has developed an organ for the given function. It is a Gestalt, because none of the organs can survive without the effective cooperation of all, each with its specific mode of action, within the host system which in turn, therefore, depends for its existence on the health of each of its organs.
But in either condition, the Gestalt is not capable of self-regulation of the specialised functions. In the first case precisely because everyone participates in it alike, autonomously, according to practices established by tradition. In the second case, because the specialised organ is what it is and regulates itself. It depends on conditions provided by the Gestalt, but its nature is to act autonomously in its own way.
The presence of an array of specialised organs, mutually interdependent inasmuch as they are organs of a self-sufficient whole, but independent inasmuch as they operate according to their own internal modes of action, is ubiquitous in creatures up to and including human beings, but human individuals, like modern post-traditional societies exhibit a higher level of system functioning, which I will call Gestalt reintegration. Children are born with the same organs for memory, vocalisation, motor control, perception, etc, as our primate relatives, but in the process of growing up into some community they develop completely new functional psychological systems. These new functional systems incorporate extrasomatic elements and work by reconfiguring the operation of multiple internal functions, so that the function which was formerly performed by one dedicated organ or subsystem, is now performed more effectively by a range of different organs in cooperation – and this is the important point – as a result of this construction of new system-wide functional systems which do not operate according to internally fixed rules, but on the contrary, are subject to the free control of the Gestalt itself, and therefore constitute the substance and foundation of the self-consciousness and autonomy of the Gestalt itself. The capacity to sublate specialised organs into new subsystems brings with it the capacity to build multiple alternative sub-systems, bringing both ‘redundancy’ and openings for new systems.
Prior to such re-integration, the Gestalt is unconscious of the function which is being executed by a dedicated organ as its own function, because the organ operates autonomously. For example, the child who does not yet use language, remembers, but their capacity to remember is limited entirely by the capacity of specialised systems which are autonomous and more or less the same from one individual to the next. Once a child has learnt to speak, she begins to use language to control their own behaviour and develop a memory that rests on speaking and hearing words, they internalise this capacity as they learn silent speech, and the action of remembering something become a complex process involving a number of formerly distinct psychological and biological functions and incorporating elements of the culture. They can now decide to remember something and make an effort to remember something, and ‘remind themselves’. They thus become aware of remembering as something that they do, and do it under conscious control. It seems that this process of re-integration hinges on the incorporation of an external artefact, such as words, images or tools of some kind.
The implication of this re-integration is that it becomes possible for the Gestalt to exercise a given function, not only ‘deliberately’, but to exercise it as a specialised activity, independently of the activity of the remainder of the Gestalt (walk and chew gum at the same time). This is not possible for the unreintegrated organism. The independence of operation of each organ within the Gestalt means that the specialised organ is at the whim of its own stimuli and what happens in other systems, it is ‘out of control’, so to speak.
So what this means is that only when the formerly specialised organs are sublated into reconstructed organs into a new, re-integrated Gestalt, is it possible for them to operate with genuine freedom, as if they were genuinely independent functions, not subordinated to the structural constraints of a Gestalt.
In social development, this kind of re-integration hinges around the introduction of a new technology (in the broadest sense, a novel mode of activity), just as for individuals, it hinges around the use of a culturally produced artefact. For example, long-distance communication is no longer the responsibility of the Postal Service, but takes place through a variety of carriers and machines, that is, new forms of mediation. As is well known, this transformation in communication restructures everything.
Before a society can be genuinely in control of its own destiny (i.e., its government carry out plans and avoid crisis), it must – not devolve all functions to all individuals, who “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” – but reintegrate the diverse functions of the community in such a way that the different functions can be exercised in a self-conscious way, and indeed that the community can be genuinely self-conscious. Division of labour remains, but every societal function involves multiple social sub-systems.
This may be just a utopian vision, but we see already this kind of development in the subsumption of all functions under capital, and the increasing tendency for the market relation to penetrate all the varieties of productive activity, even internally to a unit of capital. If we accept the idea that socialism must mean transcending both class divisions and ‘multiskilling’ and capitalism, what would this look like?
A further implication: analysis of the ‘world crisis of capitalism’. Regulation theorists have correctly made the point that various functional subsystems in different countries, exhibit a relative independence as well as interdependence. The same world market can accommodate a variety of systems of wage regulation or legal systems or capital control, and each may exhibit crises at different times, which need to be understood in relation to their own dynamics.