Home > political-economy > A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part Four)

A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part Four)

Bodies of the Communards in the aftermath of the Paris Commune

“woeful work they have made with it…”

Kevin Carson asserts Marx held to the idea the abolition of the system of wage slavery could not occur until the productive forces it represents had reached their fullest possible development. According to Carson, Marx made the argument that an attempt to create a society free of exploitation before technical and productive prerequisites for it had been achieved would be unwise. This argument is vital for Carson, because he intends to assert on the basis of this alleged error by Marx that, absent State coercion, a market in wage labor would not spontaneously give rise to a system of wage slavery. According to Carson, State coercion is the necessary condition for exploitation of the worker to take place. Without this State coercion, the worker cannot be reduced to a wage slave simply by the act of selling his labor power. Quoting Benjamin Tucker, Carson states, “the natural wage of labor is its product.”

But, by raising the charge against Marx, Carson is, in fact, changing the entire nature of his argument. Instead of sticking strictly to a historical argument, he now switches to a hypothetical one. He is asking the question: “In theory, is it possible for free and non-exploitative social relations from replacing the State before all of the technical and productive prerequisites are in place?” He asserts, without offering any evidence, that Marx answers this question with a negative. So, I have to pause for moment to disprove Carson’s charge.

The first problem with this hypothetical question is that Carson never details, on the basis of Marx’s argument, the technical and productive prerequisites for a free and non-exploitative society — that is, he never describes what the phrase “fullest possible development” of wage slavery means. And, the reason for this failure is obvious: Marx assumed Capital had already created the basis for the voluntary association of labor, by creating modern industry, the world market and a mass of individuals in all the most developed nations who had all the attributes necessary to effect this association.

In the German Ideology, Marx explains that Capital has already rendered a great mass of society propertyless, and produced great wealth and culture, based on a great increase in productive power of labor. It had already developed the productive forces and brought about universal competition within society; which produced a global labor force of wage slaves, made each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and effectively created a perverse sort of global community founded on wage slavery.

Thus, in 1845, Marx argues, the premises for a voluntary association were already in existence. These developments, in Marx’s opinion, not only made a free and non-exploitative society possible, they made its eventual emergence inevitable. By buying into the argument of Benjamin Tucker with regards to Marx’s theory, Carson is forced to ignore Marx’s own writing on this question in the German Ideology — an error which, apparently, is not difficult for Carson, since, as we have seen, he already failed to find any reference to primitive accumulation in the very same text.

In that text, Marx writes:

Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence. This appropriation is first determined by the object to be appropriated, the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse. From this aspect alone, therefore, this appropriation must have a universal character corresponding to the productive forces and the intercourse.

The appropriation of these forces is itself nothing more than the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production. The appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is, for this very reason, the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves.

This appropriation is further determined by the persons appropriating. Only the proletarians of the present day, who are completely shut off from all self-activity, are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the thus postulated development of a totality of capacities. All earlier revolutionary appropriations were restricted; individuals, whose self-activity was restricted by a crude instrument of production and a limited intercourse, appropriated this crude instrument of production, and hence merely achieved a new state of limitation. Their instrument of production became their property, but they themselves remained subordinate to the division of labour and their own instrument of production. In all expropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all.

This appropriation is further determined by the manner in which it must be effected. It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.

Again, not to put to fine a point on this, in 1845, Marx states explicitly that this voluntary association of labor results “from the premises now in existence.”

So, in complete contradiction to Kevin Carson’s assertion, and to the muddle-headed arguments of the Marxist, Marx himself argues in 1845 that all the conditions for a voluntary association of labor had already been achieved by society. On this basis, any charge made against him that the system of wage slavery had to reach “their fullest possible development,” is both an egregious distortion of the facts, and a lie. It follows from what I have said, that Marx greeted the Paris Commune — led, as it was, by Anarchists/Libertarians — as an authentic communist attempt to realize a voluntary association of labor and put an end to wage slavery.

Even if we consider Carson’s assertion that

Just social and economic relations are compatible with any level of technology; technical progress can be achieved and new technology integrated into production in any society, thorough free work and voluntary cooperation.

we only arrive at the conclusion that in all epochs men and women have struggled to put an end to the exploitation of their labor under whatever were the prevailing conditions of its extraction and realize a society in which they were not treated as the property of another in one guise or another. Marx makes no argument against this assertion, except to state that, owing to the conditions of society up to Capita,l all of these attempts merely end in new fetters on the individual. While the existing mode of the exploitation of labor is abolished, it is merely replaced by a new mode of exploitation. He does not offer a theoretical response to Carson’s hypothetical argument, but a historical one, in which men and women replace one limited mode of existence with another.

Carson, however, is not satisfied with this answer, so he further argues:

Had not the expropriation of the peasantry and the crushing of the free cities taken place, a steam powered industrial revolution would still have taken place–but the main source of capital for industrializing would have been in the hands of the democratic craft guilds. The market system would have developed on the basis of producer ownership of the means of production.

The point of Carson’s argument is, of course, that the market in wage labor need not result in a system of wage slavery. However, Marx never once argued development of the productive forces could not take place within a producer owned context; he only argued that the actual historical development of productive forces took place in opposition to peasant property and the free cities. Far from making the patently absurd argument that development of the productive forces could not take place within the context of producer control over the forces of production, Marx made the argument that, with the system of wage slavery, producer control of the productive forces could be achieved only through their voluntary association and the means of production made the common wealth of society — there was no other possible route to ownership and control over the means of production by the great mass of propertyless wage slaves other than by establishing this control in a voluntary cooperative union.

Moreover, Marx argues the system of wage slavery was itself the drag on the development of the productive forces. The productive power of social labor would never be truly realized as long as wage slavery existed. The system of wage slavery, he argued, increasingly demonstrated its senility as it proved unable to overcome the obstacles placed in the path of the development of the productive forces created by the system of wage slavery itself.

Thus we find, in the previously cited Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 15:

On the other hand, the rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population. Those economists, therefore, who, like Ricardo, regard the capitalist mode of production as absolute, feel at this point that it creates a barrier itself, and for this reason attribute the barrier to Nature (in the theory of rent), not to production. But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.

He later adds:

Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcomes them only by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale.

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

From these passages, it is clear that Marx could not have believed that a non-exploitative society had to wait until the productive forces created by wage slavery reached their fullest possible development, because he believed the system of wage slavery itself created barriers to development of the productive forces. It follows from the evidence I have offered here that, for Marx, it was not a matter of tolerating the system of wage slavery until it has reached its fullest possible development, but precisely the opposite: without abolishing the system of wage slavery the productive forces of society could not reach their fullest possible development!

How Carson manages to stand Marx’s argument on its head, and to level this charge against him is simply incomprehensible to me, but is not the least bit surprising, since Carson sets out, not to disprove the arguments of the Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist variants of critical communist thinking, but to synthesize their arguments with his own mutualist argument that a market in wage labor is consistent with a non-exploitative society. He therefore, ends up appropriating both the theoretical blunders of the Anarcho-Capitalist and the Marxist along with their insights.

I will turn to this angle in my next post.

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  1. March 23, 2012 at 4:12 am | #1

    Nice post. I really don’t see how this isn’t evident, and I certainly don’t mean abstractly!

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