Home > political-economy > “All I know is that I am not a Marxist!”: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

“All I know is that I am not a Marxist!”: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

Now, perhaps it becomes clearer why Marx, in his exasperation with his own followers, declared, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” It was never about the machines, the buildings, the banks, the factories, the farms or profit, taxes and wages — it was about the Individual and her relationship to other Individuals and Society.

In his writings, Marx sets for himself an apparent impossibly wide chasm across which he has to build a theoretical bridge. In this, he does not allow himself to take any shortcuts through some inventive sham of attributing to human beings some quality that has not, as yet, been discovered by political-economy, nor of some revolutionary party for whom the future appears with a clarity that none of the rest of society can experience.

On the one side of this historical chasm, which Marx must bridge theoretically, is a stateless, classless society of amazing abundance, wherein the individual is able to develop her capacities in an environment of complete freedom, unimpeded by any external compulsion, be it natural or social, and in a free voluntary cooperative association with others in society. Her activity springs entirely from herself, and expresses only her interest as a well-rounded human being in the social and cultural wealth that is freely available to her, and to which she can freely contribute should that be her desire.

On the other side of this chasm is the Hobbesian nightmare we call present day society.

Faced with the seemingly impossible task of conceptually bridging these two models of society, Marx begins with nothing but the categories of political-economy discovered by the great classical liberal thinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries — the Individual, the State, Civil Society, Classes, Property, Liberty — Marx does not invent these categories but imports them into his model.

  • The Individual who appears in political-economy — the abstract human being shorn of any identity or ties of affinity to family, gender, community, religion, language, race, nation — is the Individual alone who appears in his writings.
  • The State, which is already becoming characterized by illiberality, repression, aggression and totalitarianism, is the sole form of State in his writings. He does not, on any account, imagine some future benign State that can serve as a nanny for society while it finds its cooperative legs.
  • Classes, and Civil Society generally, are constantly being subjected to the intolerable stresses of the developing economic structure of society, in which no individual, group of individuals, nor all of them together, can establish control over the processes unleashed by their own productive capacities — and which capacities loom over them as if some impersonal god who mercilessly sweeps away their undertakings like Yahweh swept away Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Even the heroes of this theory — the Proletarians — are deformed, stunted, broken fragments of human beings whose constant defeat is the mode of Capital’s own self-expansion — who rise each time from their knees, their ranks more numerous than before, to stand bloodied and bruised, and to again demand what belongs to them, but who are each time knocked down by a capital that is no more than their own capacities facing them in the alien but recognizable form of the capitalist.
  • Finally, Value: that one category discovered by these great liberal thinkers that the whole of bourgeois political-economy after Marx was forced to reject, disown, and abandon.

Why is it that among all the categories of classical liberal thought Value alone was declared to be false and expelled from political-economy? What fear does it still strike in the hearts of economists? Why was it necessary to declare unremitting war on the category Value to this day?

Because this category of political-economy alone stripped all the other categories of their attribute of being Eternal Truths. Value declared all of these categories to be historically specific to the capitalist mode of production and, therefore, doomed to disappear taking with it the entirety of the inhuman Hobbesian environment that political-economy understood to be the permanent condition of mankind.

Value, Ricardo and the other classical thinkers declared, was the Individual’s own productive activity confronting her in the form of a commodity. Capital, Marx demonstrated, was simply Value that existed solely for its own self-expansion. It was nothing more than the activity of the men and women of society under conditions where their own activity, and all of the relations established by this activity, existed as a world for itself — impersonal, relentless, as formidable as any law of nature.

The Proletarians were simply former property-owners and their descendants who already had been stripped of their property, under whatever circumstances, by the brutal competition raging among the owners of property; with the fresh addition of former property owners added daily by Capital itself, society was being progressively turned into one propertyless mass. These former property-owners, now stripped of any independent means of “making a living”, were reduced to hiring themselves out as slaves in return for the means of life necessary to their survival.

(As an aside, Brad should not be confused by the much hyped expansion of the ranks of “property-owners” with those wage workers who are accumulating fictitious shares in companies through their 401Ks or, indirectly, through their pension funds — history shows that the big owners of property are always willing to offload these worthless paper claims to the sheeple at a good price, particularly when it is clear that the market is going to nosedive.)

Capital was only the result of this exchange, but, as a relentlessly expansionary social form, it required the continuous expansion of the ranks of proletarians — by outward aggression, for sure, but also by grounding under those property-owners with the misfortune to find themselves on the wrong side of its self-expansion. Thus, the process by which Capital satisfies its need for new material for its self-expansion not only implies the relentlessly aggressive and expansionary State, but the progressive concentration of property into the hands of an ever smaller circle of property-owners, as one after another they are cast into the ranks of the Proletarians.

However, the Proletarians, Marx wrote, were not simply being exploited — in all of written human history, no matter the stage of development, nor the mode of its realization, the labor of one portion of society has always been exploited by another section of society — with the capitalist mode of production the productive activity of the Proletarians was being transformed by Capital into directly social cooperative labor:

Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.

Time and again, the revolt of this mass of Proletarians might fail — would fail — but with each failure, Capital advanced the conversion of their activity into a single, globe-straddling act of cooperative social production. With each defeat, he explained, their ranks were being added to by the ongoing decomposition of the class of property-owners, and the expansion into new territories; and, with each defeat, this mass of property-less individuals were being converted into a single social laborer.

Marx, like Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Jevons and other classical liberal thinkers, theorized that capitalist society was headed toward a catastrophic event — a breakdown resulting from the logic of the category Value itself, where it would no longer be profitable to employ wage labor under any conditions. Ultimately, Capital would run up against its limit of expansion, when, as David Harvey put it, it would be clear to all members of society that “compound growth for ever is not possible: capital accumulation can no longer be the central force impelling social evolution.” In very stark terms, Marx described what this event would look like:

“…the utterly precarious position of labour–power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life…”

At this point, the propertyless mass of society — who had been conditioned to cooperative labor through several centuries of despotic rule of the capitalist, and who, as a result, were entirely at home cooperating in a common act of social activity — would be compelled, on pain of starvation, to assume control of their own productive capacities and employ them in a cooperative manner.

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