Home > economics, Occupy the Marxist Academy, political-economy, shorter work time > Social emancipation cannot be founded on labor

Social emancipation cannot be founded on labor

September 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Disconnection from the current relations of production is easier said than done in Kurz’s opinion. It is not a matter of simply seizing a single factory, a retail outlet, an office or a school, nor even of seizing all the factories, retail outlets, offices and schools altogether in a simultaneous uprising in all countries at once. These institutions evolved within the context of commodity production and exchange and are fit only to function within this mode of production. It is not simply a matter of laying hold to them on the day after “the revolution” and employing them for the cause of social emancipation. Says Kurz,

The difficulty consists in the fact that the capitalist form of the functional division of society, as in the case of the capitalist structure of use value, cannot be assimilated, without alterations, into an emancipatory reproduction.

If this argument sounds familiar to you, it should; it is precisely the difficulty the Communards faced in Paris when they took control of the old machinery of the state. They were compelled to dump that entire structure and create a new one on the fly to suit their specific needs. Marx concluded from that experience that the working class could not simply lay hold of the existing machinery of state and wield it for its purposes — that machinery had to be broken. Kurz is extending Marx’s argument well beyond the state to encompass the entire economic mechanism bound up with the capitalist mode of production. And he gives several pretty convincing reason for his conclusion:

First, if a group of workers could seize their own factory, office or school, this institution could not be pulled out of the commodity production system, because the workers don’t produce anything they directly consume. This is already obvious in an office or a school since nothing material is produced in those institutions at all — they only serve as moments in the overall system of commodity production. But, it is also true for workers in an auto factory, a packing plant, or an industrial farm.

Second, even if we assumed a global movement of factory, office and school expropriations that succeeded throughout the world market, we would still be presented with a very great difficulty. Many of these firms engage in business that are absurd outside of commodity relations — like a human resources firm, a private security firm, or contractors supplying the needs of the fascist state military for “commodities” like trident nuclear subs or predator drones. Others pose an ongoing hazard to the public, like GMO producers, pesticides manufacture, or firms constructing and operating nuclear power plants.

Third, Kurz argues there is a grotesque ignorance on the part of capitalist society and its members concerning how the current system as a whole actually functions. Most firms know little about the larger material requirement of their own activity beyond their own suppliers and clients. Frankly, what keeps capitalism working is not the conscious action of the individuals within it, but blindly acting forces operating behind the backs of the members of society. The relations between billions of daily separate acts of production only become visible in the form of innumerable transactions and capital flows.

Fourth, these billions of separate individual acts of production could only be mediated by money relations or, in the best possible outcome, by a new political structure of planning and control, which would have to intervene in social production and would, because of this, bring in its trail the danger of a new managerial elite always ready to usurp control on its own behalf. Moreover, planning, in old Marxist theories of transition, does not overcome the problem of commodity production, but merely mediates it. It simply replaces the role of prices in commodity production with the plan itself as regulator of billions of acts of production. And the plan itself is as much subject to the law of value as are the fluctuations of prices in unplanned social production. By definition, “The Plan” must be the plan of “society” as a whole, in direct opposition to the free conscious self-activity of society’s billions of individual members.

Kurz concludes from this that social emancipation cannot begin, as traditional Marxism holds, with seizing this machinery of production, but only where the act of production bound up with capitalist relations ends:

“An embryonic form such as that of a “microelectronic natural economy”, which supersedes private property in the means of production, cannot be represented at isolated points within the structure of reproduction (which at the beginning only exist in a capitalist form), but only at its end-points—where production becomes consumption. Only at these points is the constitution of a social space of cooperation possible whose activities do not lead back to the market, but are preferentially consumed, in their results, by the members themselves.”

Which is to say, this new form of organization of society must be a self-contained, autonomous, space situating entirely outside capitalist structures. Unfortunately, Kurz fails to actually come up with a model, I think, because he neglects a simple logical implication of his own analysis. In this passage, Kurz treats the material side of capitalist production and consumption as the production and consumption of material objects that can, somehow, be removed from the process of capitalist production as a whole, when it is actually inextricably connected to the production and consumption of values in the process of capitalist reproduction.

This is a common enough mistake — we all make it — but in this case it damages Kurz overall magnificent analysis. Insofar as capitalist production and consumption is conceived, it must be conceived simultaneously as the production and consumption of values, and of material objects. Thus, with regards to this capitalist act, social emancipation should be conceived as having nothing to do either with production or consumption in any form, nor as beginning with consumption, nor with regards to the nexus between the two. This must include both the production and consumption of values and also the material objects in which these values are embedded.

My argument on this point requires us to expose the mystified form on which the entire notion of value rests. Value is not a substance embedded in the commodity itself, as Marx explains in volume 1 of Capital; it is nothing more than the amount of labor time required for the production of the commodity. It, therefore, cannot be separated from the existence of the commodity itself. A society governed by value is nothing more than a society governed by the labor time required for the production of its material needs. It is silly to keep discussing value in its mystified form, as a quality of commodities, once Marx demonstrated this fact. Ninety-nine percent of the stupidities passing the lips of a Marxist consists of treating value as some ethereal substance that permeates the atmosphere of capitalist society.

As a result of this mystification of value most Marxist theories of social emancipation consists of various schemes to set labor on a new foundation when the point of the fucking exercise is to abolish labor entirely. social emancipation is not, and cannot exist, as a new foundation for labor — communist society is not a fucking society of labor. Social emancipation begins and can only begin where the socially necessary labor time of society ends — and this is the whole meaning of the present crisis.

The labor time of society has been pushed well beyond its necessary limit and this has resulted in the formation of a mass of superfluous workers and capital — as many writers like Kurz have demonstrated. The argument of bourgeois thinkers (and in this sense we must include both Marxist and alternative theorists) consists in their refusal to recognize any limits to capitalist accumulation. A society whose thinking is conditioned by the value fetish is a society whose thinking is conditioned by labor — simply put, it is a society conditioned by inescapable material want.

The true perversity of this material want is not that it exists beside actual and real wealth, but that it cannot conceive of wealth in any other fashion than universal want. It, therefore, takes the absence of want as the premise of a social catastrophe that threatens the existence of civilization itself. On all accounts, this universal want, which is the only conceivable form of wealth in a society regulated according to the law of value, must be imposed with all the means available to society.

It is only on this premise that the insane logic of fascist state economic policy can appear rational by a society drowning in unemployment, overproduction and the filth created by its own productive capacities. Marx explains this in the Grundrisse, where he writes that capitalism creates, for the first time in human history, the possibility of free disposable time for the mass of society, but only in the form of surplus labor time by this mass:

“The creation of a large quantity of disposable time apart from necessary labour time for society generally and each of its members (i.e. room for the development of the individuals’ full productive forces, hence those of society also), this creation of [non-labour] time appears in the stage of capital, as of all earlier ones, as [non-labour time], free time, for a few. What capital adds is that it increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value [is] directly its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, [is] to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour. If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital. The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour. The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.>”

Social emancipation consists in no more than the mass of society’s members wresting this free disposable time back from capital. This is not time spent in capitalist production (which, as Kurz explains, must be understood as both production and consumption bound up with capitalism, or commodity production generally) but in non-labor for the mass of society, freeing them to develop their own capacities apart from labor.

This self-development has no aim other than that given to it by the individual herself. It is, therefore, no longer “productive” in any sense of that term — neither materially or value-producing — but only the free individual unstructured activity of the members of society. As can be now seen, by resting the premise of the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism on the productive forces created by the digital revolution, and the resulting mass of superfluous workers and capital, Kurz also rendered his argument for a positive program of social emancipation unnecessary. The material for the supercession of capitalism by social emancipation is already given in the form of a mass of superfluous labor and capital produced by the material impact of the digital technology itself. To realize this new stage of society, we need only reduce hours of labor within the logic of value production and realize the result as free, disposable time of each individual.

This is why bourgeois economists, like Paul Krugman, condemn every suggestion that unemployment can be ended by a reduction of hours of labor. This proposal is routinely disparaged by the advocates of fascist state fiscal and monetary policy, who call it a proposal based on the “lump of labor fallacy” that there can be an end to the need for labor. For the apologists of the capitalist mode of production any suggestion hours of labor can be reduced is tantamount to a suggestion there is a limit to capitalist accumulation. And it is why even academic Marxists like Michael Heinrich must denounce Kurz’s analysis and posit in its place (as the blog principia dialectica delightfully put it) a theory of “the eternal return of capitalism”. As Kurz argued, no less than bourgeois economists, “historical materialism “pisses its pants”, so to speak, as soon as it is called upon to define the so-called socialist revolution.” And this is because it is incapable of conceiving human activity outside the fetishistic structures of value production.

The Marxism of the 20th Century is dead and its foul rotting corpse is stinking up the very air we breathe. All the categories of traditional Marxist analysis, having reached the theoretical limits of the expansion of human activity under the value form, can offer no help in defining social emancipation insofar is this emancipation actually crosses the threshold of communist society itself. A completely new discourse is necessary formulated in the concept of freely associated individuals, for whom activity serves as forms of self-development of each individual; and of the further development of society within these forms. This discourse, contrary to most Marxist assertions to the contrary, is littered throughout Marx’s own argument and is the premise of his own critique of social emancipation (i.e., Utopian Socialism) from the start of his career to its end.

Kurz’s argument is not quite yet that discourse, but must be considered the moment when such a discourse became necessary for the further advance of social emancipation. Our job is to elaborate this discourse, showing that it rests on the very premises of existing society – a mass of unemployed labor and a mass of superfluous capital, the premise of wealth that rests on, and cannot be conceived apart from, universal want and privation — that makes possible the unfettered self-development of each individual within society.

When we say that social emancipation is the solution to capitalist crisis, we only mean free disposable individual time away from labor is the solution to the horrors of capitalist austerity, unemployment, poverty and want.

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  1. swaim
    September 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm | #1

    How do you view groups such as Amish that hold goods in common, none to be above another, producing mainly what they need, selling some surplus. Mainly trading with each other. skip the religious base of it, just how the system works or doesn’t in your view.

  2. September 16, 2012 at 2:41 am | #2

    god damn man, out of the freaking park. i don’t even want to point out the naivete in kurz’s initial arguments after reading that hahaha

  3. Chris Wright
    September 20, 2012 at 10:53 am | #4

    I’m not sure Kurz’s theory of collapse is necessary for this general analysis, which is solid.

    For example, he criticizes Postone for not having such a theory and then ascribes to him the idea that after a crisis capitalism resets itself to a zero base-line and accumulation resumes. That actually misses Postone’s analysis of the treadmill effect, which also distinguishes Postone from Heinrich, and this is where Postone’s analysis of labor as primary mediation (and form of domination) is most decisively different from Heinrich and the rest of the value-form milieu’s targeting of money as primary mediation. Postone’s analysis allows for money as mediation for valorization, but his critique takes place deeper down in labor itself. This is why, contra Heinrich, and also Chris Arthur, Werner Bonefeld, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, etc., “labor” cannot be the standpoint of critique nor a Subject/counter-subject against capital.

    Even if there is no final crisis, each crisis of accumulation is only resolved through the massive destruction of constant and variable capital, means of production and producing individuals, i.e. scrapping and blowing up equipment and killing masses of people. Since accumulation, If it begins again and is not overthrown, does so on the basis of the most developed technology of the past cycle that was not, or little, utilized. There are numerous examples of this, but that is detail. The result is that each crisis starts with a higher composition of capital than the one that preceded it, and each new period of accumulation does as well. Each crisis is therefore more difficult to get out of than the last because the conditions for a new accumulation require more destruction of constant and variable capital and new markets of consumption.

    If we take the post-WWII world, it was evident that significant new transformations in the means of production and the labor process went hand-in-hand with a kind of mass consumption that had hitherto simply not existed. The result however now is that the level of destruction required to start a new cycle of accumulation would dwarf the destruction of 1933-1945, in extensive and intensive terms. It is impossible to separate the ecological crisis from the current crisis anymore than you can separate the financial form of the crisis from the overall overaccumulation of capital, not merely because the old forms of production were so polluting, but literally because without a cataclysmic degree of destruction it is hard to see how the mass of old capital could be destroyed and new accumulation begin on a scale that would matter.

    Instead we have capital living on promises of future valorisation in the form of massive credit-debt and a long-term stagnation and the expulsion of large parts of the global population from effective access to the capital circuit as wage-labor even as they find themselves completely enmeshed in the capital-labor relation, that is, in money relations and the need to be able to sell their labor-power to acquire that money.

  4. Chris Wright
    September 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm | #5

    Not sure if you have ever seen this stuff, definitely sect material, but I think quite good overall. They have to my mind the most rigorous critique of democracy, and also see communism as associative. Here are links to the most relevant material vis-a-vis your blog.

    http://gci-icg.org/english/theses_programmatical_orientation.htm Overview of their outlook, with bits on democracy and crisis that are particularly relevant.

    http://gci-icg.org/english/communism13.htm#dictatorship_economy (in fact, the whole issue is pretty choice)

    http://gci-icg.org/english/communism8.htm#mythdemo The Myth of Democratic Rights and Liberties

    http://gci-icg.org/english/communism9.htm#characteristics This is a rather decent article on the character of the present struggles that strikes me as of continued relevance.

    http://gci-icg.org/english/communism4.htm#communism_dem Communism against Democracy

    http://gci-icg.org/english/sd_conception.htm Covers Social Democracy and Leninism as two sides of the same coin.

    • September 20, 2012 at 8:29 pm | #6

      Wow this is some good stuff! Thank you Chris!

  5. Chris Wright
    September 21, 2012 at 10:29 am | #7
  6. Threecrow
    September 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | #8

    This is as close as you and I can come to “seeing” the same future. The path may be difficult to see and, perhaps, difficult to articulate; but, in the final analysis, Any alternative to this vision creates and imposes a harsh, unhappy future for humanity.

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