Home > Occupy the Marxist Academy, political-economy, shorter work time > Social emancipation is incompatible with every form of property

Social emancipation is incompatible with every form of property

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


In the first section of his essay, Kurz examined the limitations of 20th Century Marxism that, he argued, was incapable of theoretically superseding capitalism except by means of a proposed future event, the proletarian political revolution, which, would solve all of capitalism’s ills and manage society in some undisclosed fashion. To address this theoretical failure, in section two of his essay, Kurz returns to the basic schema of Marx, the link between the forces and relations of production. Kurz proposes the technologies associated with the digital revolution renders living, value producing, labor increasingly superfluous to production. Kurz concludes the significance of the new technology is not to be found in its production, but in its utilization by society. This technology cannot be employed to mobilize the massive labor armies of the Fordist era.

I argue, following Kurz, the impact of the digital revolution on the ‘economy’ appears to us in its phenomenal or perceptible form as a growing potential for social collapse and regression to a primitive state of simple survival. This survivalist fear is simply the result of the conditioning of our consciousness by commodity production itself — since we have been conditioned by bourgeois society to take its relations as the “natural” form of society, we experience capitalism’s potential for collapse as the potential for the collapse of civilization itself, when it is actually otherwise. In fact, as Kurz seems to argue, the potential inherent in this technology for the collapse of commodity production must actually be the premise of our conceptions of social emancipation; because this technology makes possible a decentralized organization of society without the necessary fulcrum of the state and commodity fetishism generally.

In this context, I think it is important to understand what Kurz means by the terms “production” and “utilization” in this essay. By production he is not talking about generic production as occurred in all ages, but specifically capitalist production, i.e., the production of values and surplus values, production for profit. This production encompasses the production, exchange and consumption of values only insofar as these values, having been produced, reenter capitalist reproduction.

On the other hand, it seems to me that by utilization Kurz is not talking about idle consumerist uses of digital technology — for instance, cell phones, DVRs, social media and the like — but the employment of technology outside the capitalist reproduction process entirely; a utilization that includes both noncapitalist forms of production and consumption. Kurz is arguing that this technology can be used for social emancipation only insofar as it is not employed for capitalist reproduction. The inability of the technology to serve as means of producing value stems first, not from idealized notions of social emancipation, but entirely from the gross imbalance of the vast quantity of constant capital (factories, machines etc.) that must be employed to set in motion a negligible quantity of living labor — capitalism has already materially paved the way for its own transcendence.

In section 3 of his essay, Kurz explains why the development of the productive forces in this technology, makes a transformation of the relations of production necessary and inevitable; and why this transformation is incompatible with property in all of its forms — individual, cooperative and state ownership. On the question of the relations of production, Kurz is concerned to emphasize that any relations of production which do not rest on unmediated intercourse between individuals is essentially a form of private property even when, as in state property, it appears in the guise of collective ownership by the whole of society. Thus Kurz argues all forms of property — state owned property, cooperatives, private firms — are forms of private property and incompatible with social emancipation.

The relations between individuals within each of these forms differs, of course, depending on the form itself; however, what lends a credibility to any of these forms as potential paths to emancipation is the fiction that equates ownership of property with control over its employment. We can see this, for instance, in a vulgar interpretation of the slogan of the Occupy movement, “We are the 99%!” Implicit in this interpretation is the idea that “this crisis” is the result — put in its most crude form — of the bad behavior of Wall Street.

Kurz argued this fiction is part of a long tradition that sees property as something serving at the command of its owner and confuses merely legal claims with actual control. It is true, says Kurz, that the owners of property make subjective calculations regarding their property, but over emphasis on this calculation misses the bigger picture for emancipation: the owners of property are as subject to the law of value as anyone else. Says Kurz,

“Such a notion only sees the subjective calculation of the owners of the means of production, but not their formal objectivized determination which is imposed upon the supposed “powerful” as a principle of external coercion and instantly penalizes any deviation from the laws of motion and of the form of value. The evils of capitalism, therefore, must not be imputed to the subjective decisions of its functional agents, but to the subjectless and fetishistic form of reproduction and mediation itself.”

To put it briefly, the simplistic idea that this crisis is caused by the bad behavior of Wall Street also implies they could have acted otherwise. It implies, in other words, that if we just change the people in charge of managing these institutions or the forms of property ownership of the institutions within which people operate, capitalism, or, more broadly, commodity production and a society whose relations are mediated by the law of value, can be fixed. All that is necessary to accomplish this is a change in the form of property relations.

Of course, it is not likely you will find a self-respecting Marxist who will actually allow these absurdities to exit his mouth in this vulgar form; so, we have to visit the words of a Marxist who clearly has no self-respect at all, like Alfredo Saad-Filho, who wrote (PDF):

“A left alternative could include, initially, the nationalization of all financial institutions in trouble, without compensation beyond what has already been paid, transferred or loaned to them; closing down the hedge funds and other institutions trading only between themselves and performing no discernible productive role for the economy, and the abolition of bonuses and the limitation of the bankers’ compensation to that of civil servants with equivalent responsibilities.”

Somehow, at least “initially”, nationalizing the fictional claims of Wall Street and putting the lard-asses who manage these claims on the public payroll at civil servant wages will ameliorate the present crisis. Saad-Filho paints a fantasy describing what such changes would produce,

“In this new scenario, the state would run the banks according to public policy goals, instead of having to accommodate short-term profitability; the banks will no longer be come tangled up in socially destructive businesses, and society could be more certain that there will be no systemic financial crises or regressive bail outs in the future.”

Now, and I went up to Wikipedia to confirm this fact, Saad-Filho was a publishing economist when the last experiment in state ownership on the scale he is suggesting shit the bed. I assume he was near a fucking television when it happened; and, I assume, he, like most economists, is familiar with the collapse of that state experiment and accompanying 40% fall in living standards of the Russian people. Moreover, I also assume he is completely familiar with the history of Soviet invasions, arms sales, and Chernobyl-level ecological damage that state left in its wake, and with the role China now plays in funding the American war machine that is slaughtering civilians in Afghanistan. So, frankly, what the fuck is Saad-Filho talking about? What is it about state ownership that prevents them from getting “tangled up in socially destructive businesses, and … systemic financial crises or regressive bail outs in the future.”

This is the sort of shit academic Marxists routinely present as the path of social emancipation.

In looking at the various forms of property — individual, cooperative, and state owned — Kurz concludes none of these forms are fit to encompass the forces of production that now require a completely decentralized organization of society. This is true if for no other reason than in each of these forms control of the property is only formally — i.e., by law — in the hands of its owners, while, in actuality, impersonal forces, over which no individual has control or can establish control, mediate these relations. Finally, all forms of property require the state to enforce claims and to represent, in ideal form, the interests bound up with the property form in question.

It follows from Kurz’s argument that the relations between individuals established in a post-capitalist environment must be premised on direct cooperative intercourse between freely associated individuals. Neither the state nor any form of property can serve as the basis for social emancipation.

In the final part of this series, I will address how Kurz proposes to disconnect from commodity production and create the embryonic form of a natural economy based on the digital revolution.

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