top of page

Introduction to Totality & Complementary Holism

Chris Spannos

[This is a very rough draft essay prepared as a "weekly lecture" for the Z Education Online course "Participatory Society 1." It is to help conceptualize the theory guiding the course. My hope is to maybe build on this much more to turn into a pamphlet, so in that sense this is just an outline, and needs much more by way of examples and texture. Also, please note that this blog is not big enough to display some of the illustrations so they are smaller than they should be, therefore a little blurry. You can enlarge the text on the screen in your browser options, or using Ctrl and +, to view larger and clearer versions of the illustrations.]

There are a variety of ways to view the world if one wants to change it. The predominant Classical Left approach to understanding and changing the world was Historical Materialism (HM), a methodological approach to understanding society and history with strong emphasis on relations within the economic sphere based on the idea that history is driven by the struggle between two classes of people. One class, the Capitalists, own the means of production and want to buy labor for as little as possible while increasing work intensity and length, seeking to make as much profit as possible. The Capitalist class are in need of the second class, Workers, who are forced to sell their labor for as much as they can get, while seeking better working conditions, more leisure time, and more control over the production process. The interests of the two classes are opposed. In contrast to this classical class analysis, this course presents a three-class analysis proposing that, in addition to the two classes there is a third called the "coordinator class" who are above the workers and do more conceptual and empowering tasks while working below the capitalists. The coordinator class have their own interests such as preserving their empowering work, above the working class, while also seeking ever more power and autonomy from the capitalists. The struggle between Classes ensues and in the classical view of HM this struggle occurs at the "Base," referring to the mode of production, and encompasses the forces and social relations of production. Additionally the classical Marxist concept of "Superstructure" refers to everything else other than the "Base"---political, legal, social, cultural, institutional and ideological relations---which are viewed to be derivative of the "Base." (See figure 1) A common criticism of Historical Materialism in the 60s and 70s was that it, not only over emphasized class and under emphasized race, gender, etc., but that it actually abstracted away core characteristics and concerns of other social groupings, and consequentially theorized a less than primary role for these agents of change in the process of societal transformation. An alternative to Historical Materialism would retain the effort to understand the historical forces of change and also take into account the Totality of social relations and the core defining institutions that shape people and society as a whole, not just through class struggle, but through all sides of life. This is not to say that there is not a causal force within different societies at different historical periods, nor that some forces don't deserve more focused attention than others. It is that an alternative to HM would not a priori treat other actors and spheres of social life as less a force for historical change than class. Rather, each society would be approached carefully with an aim to understand interrelations, dependencies, and conflicts within and between different spheres of social life. This view has been called "Complementary Holism" or "Radical Theory." Rather than seeing society through the lens of "Base" and "Superstructure" Radical Theory offers a different conceptual framework beginning broadly with the concepts "Center" and "Boundary." These concepts are an attempt to re-work an understanding of who the agents of social change are. The theory proposes that people are both subject and object, as well as subject and subject of society and history. That is, as "subject/object" people interact with the material world and as they do, they shape that material world and are also shaped by it. This is consistent with the classical Marxist view of relations between Base and Superstructure. However, as "subject/subject," people as subjects interact with other subjects, i.e. other people, in a variety of defining social settings, affecting socialization, cultures, and identities, and are in-turn shaped by them. Taken together, both subject/object and subject/subject views are consistent with a Totalist perspective. Additionally, even though we are comprised of an evolutionary process and genetic make-up, human beings are also beings of "praxis" with the capacity to act consciously to change our historical circumstance and in-turn change ourselves.

Four Spheres of Social Life Radical Theory carves out the Human Center and Institutional Boundary into four separate social spheres: the Economic Sphere, the Kinship Sphere, the Community Sphere and the Political Sphere. The concepts of human center and institutional boundary are fairly broad, so to help refine the insights these concepts provide, and carve out in further detail how people interact with societal institutions, we add a few more concepts. The Economic Sphere is where the production, consumption, and allocation of material means of life occur. The key institutions for the economy are workplaces, allocation mechanisms, property relations, and remuneration schemes. The Kinship Sphere is where child rearing, nurturing future generations, socializing and care giving occur. Key institutions are the family, with parental and child rearing roles, where gender and sexuality, and other relations form for boys and girls, men and women, fathers and mothers, adults, children and the elderly. The Political Sphere is where adjudication, policy regulation and law making occur with courts, a legislature and police. The Community Sphere is where identity, religion, and spirituality occur with race, ethnicity, places of worship, beliefs about life and death, celebration, etc.

Complementary Holism

Radical Theory necessitates a complementary approach when seeking to understand these different spheres.

A monist approach would look at one sphere and attribute primary importance on how that sphere affects the rest of social life. For example, someone looking at the economy may say we need to focus on class struggle because it is the primary force affecting all other spheres - gender, cultural, political relations, and so on. (See figure 2)

A pluralist approach would look at any combination of these spheres and simply add and summarize the results. For instance someone looking at the kinship and economic spheres would see class struggle and patriarchy as the primary forces determining the shape of society. (See illustration below)

A third approach, and the one necessitated by a Radical Theory, argues for a complementary and holistic orientation which does not a priori assume the primary dominance of any of the spheres over any of the others, but instead seeks to understand how the parts of the whole are interdependent and relate to one another. It understands that a variety of interactions among the different spheres can occur and that careful observation and assessment will more than likely yield differing results from society to society. (See figure 3)

We use the concepts of human center and institutional boundary, and the four social spheres, to examine how people interact with their institutions and to assess the stability of that society - whether it is evolving as people conform to their institutional roles, behaviors and reproduced outcomes, or whether there may be a revolution in one or more spheres where people are resisting the expected roles, behaviors and outcomes, and seeking new or transformative institutions. If society is to be stable, people's behavior must conform to the expected roles, relationships and corresponding outcomes of that society's defining institutions. Core Characteristics To further examine relations between spheres it helps to look for core characteristics, an attribute, or set of attributes, a relation or set of relations, that have a defining impact on the lives large numbers of people are able to lead. It is a feature or set of features determining interpersonal relations, life options, and social groupings. For example, in any society, if there are certain social features intrinsic to all relations between men and woman and these determine a basic inequality between them than these would likely define a core characteristic. They would determine much of what people are and can be, what needs they can perceive and can fulfill, what limits are placed on their development by social relations and their own consciousness. Core characteristics of this sort would come to penetrate both the core's center and boundary. While we cannot know a society's determining core characteristics before studying them, we do know we can look for them in both the human center and institutional boundary.

Accommodation and Co-Reproduction We use these concepts to assess the stability of a society. Although there can be some contradiction or conflict, accommodation between spheres is necessary for societal stability and occurs when social hierarchies which evolve, in community activity for instance, are not contradicted by economic relations, and vice versa.

"Co-reproduction" is different from accommodation in that it is necessary that mutual reinforcement of social and institutional relations and outcomes occures. Human consciousness, needs, self perceptions, and material conditions need to complement one another across spheres to provide a single total world view.

Individual people or whole societies can experience contradictions in context of their development but without overall accommodation one or more spheres must change. If community life places whites above blacks institutionally and in consciousness, than economic relations must "honor" this inequality. But it is possible that beyond accommodating this hierarchy, economic relations help reproduce or aggravate the asymmetry. In this case, the very definition of economic roles and the content of their requisites would be a function of the racial core characteristics as well as the class core characteristic. In this situation we speak of "co-reproduction" and "co-definition." For example, it is co-reproduction between spheres when there exists kinship divisions of labor in the economic sphere when kinship helps define workplace divisions of labor in a single workplace or when women do more care giving oriented labor in workplaces or job sectors across the economy. Evolution and Revolution We've looked at the Human Center and Institutional Boundary, the Four Social Spheres, and we overviewed a Complementary and Holistic orientation when seeking to understand how these different spheres interact, and we've touched on accommodation and co-reproduction. The next thing is to be aware of is whether relations and features in spheres perpetuate already existing institutions with corresponding consciousness, behaviors and outcomes, or if they lead to different institutions, corresponding behaviors, consciousness and outcomes. The former would be an Evolution, and the latter a Revolution. Trying to assess these dynamics isn't always easy because the relations between spheres are working all the time whether we are aware of them or not and often are deeply rooted in the human condition and resulting from fundamental human needs. (See figure 4) Making matters more complicated is that dynamics we talked about just above where one or more spheres can accommodate and reproduce themselves in another sphere or vice versa. The opposite can also occur where dynamics from one sphere can conflict with the defining features and outcomes of another. Using the same example as above, where the workplace and economy can be a site where kinship dynamics unfold. If men began to do an equitable share of workplace care giving this would conflict with patriarchal gender dynamics in the home just as women empowered by more equitable work place remuneration norms and decision making opportunities would also affect the kinship sphere. These stabilizing and destabilizing societal forces are usually the ones that social movements seek to affect. By trying to understand them, and finding, refining (and changing or abandoning for another if needed) a theory that provides the most insight to help guide us, we can aspire to change them. (See figure 5, below figure 4, for proposed "Essential Concepts For Understanding Any Society.")

bottom of page