"Contradiction and Overdetermination" is a curious essay, since in my eyes it is glaringly schematic and incomplete. We have here a number of words that promise interesting concepts ("overdetermination", "determination (by the economy) in the last instance", "general contradiction", and of course the base-superstructure distinction). But do we find substantial concepts behind these words? In this post, I will briefly go through some of these terms and see what can be said about them.
First we must define the simple Hegelian notion of contradiction. This type of contradiction is
only possible on the absolute condition of taking the whole concrete life of a people for the externalization-alienation of an internal spiritual principle, which can never definitely be anything but the most abstract form of the epoch's consciousness of itself: its religious or philosophical consciousness, that is, its own ideology. (66)Althusser finds this notion inadequate to the complexity of social reality. Nevertheless, he must retain the notion of contradiction in order to salvage the "General Contradiction" that is such an important part of the Marxian understanding of capitalism.
The "General Contradiction" is "the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes" (61). But is the move from forces-and-relations of production to class struggle quite so easy to make? This "essential embodiment" seems to me rather opaque, unless of course one reverts to the kind of orthodoxy from which Althusser is at pains to distance himself. In any case, this General Contradiction is supposed to be the most fundamental, abstract, and pure contradiction. Other contradictions are to be understood as falling somehow within the sphere delimited by this General Contradiction.
It seems very much as if the General Contradiction stood in some kind of transcendental relation to the particular and concrete contradictions of capitalist society. It is as if the General Contradiction must be embodied, brought down from its lofty ideal essence, in other words instantiated, in order that it may have material and social effects.
Concrete contradictions must be articulated together under the aegis of the General Contradiction for a revolutionary rupture to occur. Individual contradictions do not have the general import or revolutionary possibility that is possible so long as they remain separate and merely concrete. The General Contradiction must be lived out in individual particular contradictions and has no existence apart from them.
This is precisely the notion of overdetermination. But what is determination (by the economy) in the last instance?
This idea is introduced in order to retain the Marxist understanding of capitalism, in other words the General Contradiction (and other related notions). Determination in the last instance promises to retain the primacy of the economy so essential to Marxist analysis while also allowing for overdetermination. Determination in the last instance is the theoretical bridge between contradiction and overdetermination.
As many commentators have undoubtedly noticed, determination in the last instance makes the argument almost completely opaque: How can the economy be determining in the last instance, yet "the lonely hour of the 'last instance' never comes" (76)? Can Althusser remain a Marxist while also dispersing causal primacy from the economy to any and in fact potentially all other spheres?
One way I propose to understand the puzzling notion of "determination in the last instance" is to take it as a matter of fidelity, in other words a subjective principle of speculative relation. The economy's relation to the rest of social reality is opaque; can it be thought as determining (primary) without lapsing into vulgar and pre-given channels of influence? Determination by the economy in the last instance is consequently the positing of a speculative relation beyond all possibility of givenness - never given, the determining power of the economy is nonetheless asserted as real.
Why not posit some other social sphere as the determining one? On the one hand we could consider this a practical decision, given the relative primacy of the economy in matters relating to, say, social movements.
But on the other hand, we could consider the economy as a rather special sphere deserving, perhaps, of special treatment. Somewhere in his work, Althusser states that the economy can determine which sphere ends up being determining: a kind of higher-order determination. Given that economic considerations are universal in a unique way, this argument makes sense. There exists an objective study of economic relations, so we could take the economy as a baseline from which to extend our considerations out in other directions and to other spheres.
This is necessarily speculative. And there are probably other reasons one could privilege the economy. Hopefully in some of his other works I have not yet read, Althusser returns to this question and attempts a better grounding of his speculations introduced in this essay.