Home > political-economy > The Value of Nothing: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

The Value of Nothing: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

In the first part of this series () I argued that Karl Marx’s Individual is the same Individual who appears in the writings of 18th and 19th Century thinkers. Moreover, Marx’s assumptions imply an environment of Hobbes’ war of all against all and an increasingly illiberal, repressive and aggressive, parasitic State.

In the second part of this series () I argued that Marx never believed that there would need to be a period of state socialism to achieve a stateless society. His model of a revolutionary reconstitution of society rested on the idea of a free voluntary cooperative association, which emerges directly out of capitalist society and, which would be the only form of social organization in this stateless community. Marx’s model of the emergence of this voluntary association assumed it occurred empirically, i.e., as an act of commonsense necessity to everyone.

In the third part of this series () I argued that Marx did far more than merely uncover the secret of the worker’s exploitation. Marx’s theory is not a theory of labor’s exploitation under the capitalist system but a theory of social decomposition and transformation of labor activity: ripping the producers from their property; casting them into the ranks of the Proletarians; molding their activity through centuries of despotic capitalist rule into directly social cooperative laborers employing means of production that could only be put into motion by their combined cooperative effort. The transformative process comes to an end when it is no longer profitable to employ labor power under any circumstances — an event which compels the proletarians to take control of their own productive capacities as individuals and organize their activity in free voluntary association.

In this part I will show why Brad is wrong when he states that Marx’s theory requires an unusually altruistic individual to realize the voluntary association. Marx’s theory does not in any way involve a society of unusually altruistic individuals, because it rests on the assumption that scarcity itself has been abolished.

Brad, in his post, “Marxism And Libertarian Exploitation Theory”, argues:

[Marx’s] analysis does not take into account individual goals, which is a very human desire to maximize gains for one’s self and one’s own. Humans are cooperative, but we are cooperative individuals. Cooperation can be sustained in a system of mutual benefit, but humans typically have a difficult time sacrificing for the collective over the long haul. Anarcho-socialism relies on such mutual cooperation (and sacrifice) in the absence of a coercive entity, and thus relies on human nature to be compatible with such a system.

Is this assumption actually correct? Does Marx’s theory assume that the individual sacrifice for the collective over the long haul? Let’s begin by returning to Marx’s sketch of the circumstances surrounding the birth of a society founded directly on voluntary association.

In Marx’s model of the State, this parasitic entity appears to hover over society. This separation of the State from Civil Society is in some sense real and in another sense only apparent: as Brad Warbiany demonstrates, the best writers of the time saw in many State actions of the 18th and 19th Century the expression of some definite interest of specific groups in society — a trail of evidence that could probably be traced to the actual motives of specific individuals, as some have argued in the case of our own War on Terror. However, even with these observations it is far from correct to view the State as a mere instrument of any given interest within Civil Society — that it always expresses, for instance, the will of the capitalist class against the working class in some vulgar fashion. It is closer to the truth to understand that the State is the expression of the interests of Capital — a social relationship between and within the two classes, which is not, nor can it be, identical with the interests of either class, nor any particular faction of either class.

If some particular State action can be traced to the interests of one or the other class, and to one or another faction or groups of individuals within either class, it is necessary to point out that it represents those interests within the limits imposed on it by Capital itself. It is possible, therefore, for the State to both express the general interest of all social classes within the limits of capitalist relations, and, simultaneously, appear indifferent, hostile, and an increasingly intolerable burden to the whole of society. Thus, while bourgeois writers after Marx increasingly explain the actions of the State by reference to the interests of one or another faction of society — for the Nazis, it was Jews and communists; in our own time it has been black helicopter conspiracies, the Illuminati, or some other such nonsense — Marx’s theory explains those actions by referencing the general conditions prevalent under capitalist social relations.

I believe the above picture of the relation between the State and Civil Society has implications not only for the politics of capitalist society, it has implications for the manner in which the category Value expresses itself as well. Moishe Postone, in his painstaking reconstruction of Marx’s thinking on Labor as a Value creating activity, “Time, Labor, and Social Domination”, showed that Value — which Marx defined as the socially necessary labor time required to produce labor-power — was not only the basis for the exploitation of the worker in the form of surplus labor time — which, in his model, is the source of profit, interest and rent — but also the basis for a peculiar form of labor activity: superfluous labor time; the period of labor activity which is entirely superfluous to the productive employment of labor power either for the production of wage goods or capital goods.

Where does this superfluous labor time come from?

With the increasing productivity of social labor, an increasing share of the existing labor-power can no longer be profitably employed, i.e., employed by capitals for the purpose of creating surplus value. Capital begins to exhibit symptoms of relative breakdown: an entirely superfluous mass of proletarians who cannot find employment, a mass of machinery which can no longer be put to use by these proletarians, a mass of money-capital which cannot find profitable investment opportunities, and a mass of commodities which cannot be sold.

On the one hand, this so-called deficit in “aggregate demand”, Marx declares, is nothing more than the necessity for a general reduction in hours of work expressed in the form of the law of Value prevailing in capitalist society. On the other hand, since, the purchase and sale of labor power remains essential to Capital itself, and the basis for both the subsistence of the proletarians and the extraction of surplus value by capitals, the necessity for a general reduction in hours of work takes its opposite form: A general social demand from the two great classes in capitalist society for intervention by the State to increase “aggregate demand” by various measures — in other words, for action by the State for active economic policy intervention designed to ensure that the essential condition of Capital — the purchase and sale of labor-power — can continue uninterrupted.

This intervention, which is essentially fascistic, accompanies the rise of the Fascist State, and rests on the interests of both great classes in capitalist society insofar as they are considered only as poles of the relation, Capital, explains the astonishing growth of the State in the 20th Century, which expands from an estimated mere 3 percent of United States Gross Domestic Product to approximately 43 percent in 2010, with an accumulated debt that is greater than the total annual output of the United States’ economy — and currently increasing at the unprecedented rate of more than ten percent per year.

It is precisely in this unprecedentedly enlarged cancer on society that what Michael O. Powell, in his post, “Rethinking Marx”, calls the “high degree of capital to fund” voluntary association is already present in its latent form, as an constantly increasing mass of productive capacity being expended in the wholly unproductive — and from the standpoint of a voluntary association, wholly unnecessary — form of State expenditures. The conversion of the relative breakdown of Capital into its absolute form, which implies the collapse of active State intervention in the economy, frees the entirety of the productive capacity of society from both the dependence on profit as the motive force of productive activity, and the overwhelming mass of this capacity from its wasteful and superfluous employment by the State.

The members of society, who are by this collapse, compelled to create a voluntary cooperative association, find themselves awash in an abundance of productive capacity exceeding, by far, any measurable need for it. With the abolition of the State, the need for Labor itself disappears, taking with it the epoch of scarcity,the Law of Value, Class society, and all the ugly muck of ages.

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