A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Final Part)
“Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this?” Noam Chomsky
In his mutualist economic work, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Carson asks us to consider two questions:
“1) if the “historical process” of primitive accumulation involved the use of force, how essential was force to that process; and if force was essential to the process, does it not follow that past force, as reflected in the present distribution of property, underlies the illusion of “free contract”; 2) how is it possible for employers to consistently pay a price for labor-power less than its product, if labor is free to bargain for the best possible deal? (Recourse to vague ideas of “social power” or “market power,” without an explicit examination of their nature, is not a satisfactory explanation.)”
With these questions, Kevin is actually throwing dust in our eyes to blind us; this is clearly some kind of literacy test for dumb Marxists:
Taking the second question first, in Marx’s actual theory the worker is never paid “less than her product”, since the only “product” in her possession is her labor power. There is no reason to explain how she is compelled to receive less than the value of this commodity; there is no need to appeal to vague nonsense phrases like “social power” or “market power” to explain profit — but then again, at no point in Marx’s theory does Maurice Dobbs or Benjamin Tucker make an appearance inform the parties how the law of value is supposed to function. In Marx’ model, competition between and among the capitalists and workers does not give rise to the value of labor power — this competition plays no role whatsoever in deciding how labor power will be priced. Rather, only after labor power becomes a commodity, and, thereby, acquires a value, does the universal competition between and among capitalist and workers arise. Competition does not explain wages, wages explain competition.
As is normal for a free market, the worker is entirely free to shop her labor power for the best deal; so, she always receives the full value for it. And, as Carson should already realize, there is not one act in this process but two as in any such exchange — an exchange of money for a commodity and its actual use — neither of which is, in any fashion, given by the other.
First, we have the exchange of wages for the labor power — an act, as Carson informs us, that is entirely innocent of all exploitative features, and not in any fashion to be regarded as threatening. As in any other commodity exchange we have to assume the capitalist and worker agree on a set price for this commodity, each with an eye to maximizing their gain by the transaction. The worker has to consider all the elements that go into the value of her labor power directly and indirectly — food, clothing, shelter, medical care, a Facebook page of her own, etc.; the capitalist approaches the transaction as he would any other business investment, with an eye to a return on his investment in the particular commodity negotiating the terms of its own purchase across the table from him. The question is: How much is the capitalist willing to offer for this labor power? While Carson has no difficulty understanding how a plot of virgin land containing a seam of coal might acquire a value in the market, with labor power, how it comes to acquire a value quite different than what it can produce seems altogether a mystery to him. However, as in the case of coal and land, the capitalist values this object as he does any other: by what he might gain by employing it as capital.
Carson argues, but never demonstrates, why this labor power should have its price determined by anything other than the same laws that determined the prices of any object. Yes, as Carson states, unlike the worker, coal does not require coaxing to give up its heat; but, by the same token, coal cannot be coaxed to pull itself out of the ground by flights of fancy of a better life in a furnace. A Mexican peasant, however, might be encouraged by such visions to leave her small plot of land to pick lettuce in one of the many agricultural factories in the United States. Even if we assume this job is unpleasant and avoided by Americans, we can easily imagine that purely economic interest might encourage the Mexican peasant to uproot herself from her small plot and make a remarkably dangerous journey to the United States in search of better economic opportunities. All we have to assume in this case is that the peasant obtains a material advantage over her present circumstances as a small-holder in Mexico by voluntarily selling herself into wage slavery in America. As Engels argued against Duhring, no force is necessary for this purely economic transaction; yet, the peasant voluntarily abandons her independent means of labor to become a wage slave precisely because she can improve her economic circumstances by doing so. Having separated herself from her independent means of labor to cross into the United States, the worker finds her labor power is now entirely useless to her, and, for this reason, is without any value at all unless she can find a buyer who has a use for it. But, it is useful to the capitalist only insofar as he can employ it as capital and produce a profit over the wage he has paid for it.
What is significant about this transaction, however, is this: until the transaction actually takes place, the labor power has not produced anything — it is merely a potential investment by the capitalist who hopes to employ it afterward to create a profit. For the moment, this is only a hope on the part of the capitalist. Whether this hope is realized is of no concern to the worker, who wants only to be paid the full value of her labor power in its present pristine form, unsoiled by the act of labor. So, when Benjamin Tucker sticks his nose into this private transaction to warn both sides that labor power is entitled to its full product, both sides tell him to go to hell, since, they agree, the labor power has not produced anything, and is itself the “product” being discussed. Asking Mr. Tucker to leave the room so they can finalize their agreement, they proceed to agree on a price. The first act of the transaction is complete — the labor power was purchased at it value, and all parties are satisfied with the deal. At no point was it necessary for either party to call in the State to sign onto the agreement “in letters of blood and fire.”
Only now do we get to the second act: the exploitation of this labor power by the capitalist. Carson wants the worker to be paid the full value produced by the actual consumption of the labor power; but, as we can now see, when the labor power is actually being exploited, it is no longer the property of the worker — it belongs to the capitalist who purchased it. The exchange of money for the commodity was only the first step and has been completed. It is now the property of the capitalist — although it still physically stands before him in the body of the worker. The labor power is not put to work until the capitalist has closed the deal to the satisfaction of both parties. Carson is entirely correct to say that the value of the labor power is its product, but this value is determined by the use to which its owner will now put it. Carson wants to skip over this observation, or treat it as inconsequential to the discussion; but it is, in fact, the heart of the matter. When the laborer puts her own labor power to use as an individual producer, its usefulness for her is directly realized in the product her labor can produce. If we could speak of value (wage) in this context (which, of course, would be silly) the “natural wage” of this labor would indeed be its product. This does not change one iota if we now assume the labor power is employed, not by the direct producer, but by the capitalist: the same condition holds: the usefulness of the labor power for the capitalist is directly realized in the product it produces.
Is there anything in this latter act of exploitation that requires State intervention? Is there anything in the latter act that requires unequal exchange in the former? Is there any reason why just this sort of exchange cannot happen completely as described in the absence of the State? Carson should answer these questions carefully, because he has made the argument that just such a transaction is benign, and is entirely consistent with his vision of a petty bourgeois market socialism. As a libertarian, he also believes a property owner has the right to employ his property as he sees fit without State interference or subsidy. The only difference between Carson and Marx in this above described scenario is that Marx states this is all that is required for exploitation, while Carson swears it to be the basis for market socialism.
Turning to the first question, an answer to which Carson demanded, we can now understand how Engels could argue that, in theory, the entirety of the premises of capitalism could arise by purely economic means without any appeal to the process of primitive accumulation Marx graphically describes in both the German Ideology and Capital. Indeed, in the very text cited by Carson with regard to Marx description of primitive accumulation, Marx himself refers to it as an artificial (i.e., not natural) means of abbreviating the transition from feudal to capitalist relations of production:
The system of protection was an artificial means of manufacturing manufacturers, of expropriating independent labourers, of capitalizing the national means of production and subsistence, of forcibly abbreviating the transition from the mediaeval to the modern mode of production.
Moreover, Marx in describing primitive accumulation notes that, side by side with primitive accumulation, the disintegration of the old society is already preceding apace:
The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.
The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondsman of another. To become a free seller of labour power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and the impediments of their labour regulations. Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.
The industrial capitalists, these new potentates, had on their part not only to displace the guild masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, the possessors of the sources of wealth. In this respect, their conquest of social power appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man. The chevaliers d’industrie, however, only succeeded in supplanting the chevaliers of the sword by making use of events of which they themselves were wholly innocent. They have risen by means as vile as those by which the Roman freedman once on a time made himself the master of his patronus.
There is, Marx notes, a two-sided process taking place — not simply the primitive accumulation occurring under the influence of emerging capitalist relations, but also a disintegration of the old feudal relations of production which sets the elements of these new forces free. Carson makes the argument that employment of these artificial means, even if they were limited only to that ugly period of human history, nevertheless taints the relations of productions down to the present day:
As for the fact that the pre-existing economic means must have been gotten by someone’s labor, once again, so what? Who said that force created production? One might as well say that the pre-existence of a host organism negates the principle of parasitism. And Engels himself admitted that the economic means might be in the hands of the ruling class as a result of past force. If the means of production under their control may indeed be the result of forcible robbery, what becomes of Engels assertion of these pre-existing means as a telling point against the force theory? In any case, it is quite consistent to posit a process in a series of stages, in which the progressive accumulation of capital, and the increasing exploitation of labor, are a mutually reinforcing synergistic trend, with force as still the primary cause of exploitation. In every case, the accumulated economic means that make heightened exploitation possible are the result of past robbery. As the Hindu theologian said of turtles, it’s force all the way down.
Carson makes a powerful argument here that an event precipitating a historical process expresses itself in the relations established long after the event has passed into history. Capitalist relations of production, even if they were not today influenced by continuous State intervention to maintain the system of exploitation, owe their existence to the ugly use of violence at the earliest moments of its emergence. However, as we have seen in this chicken-versus-egg farce of an argument, Capital is only the final stage of an historical process whereby the direct laborer is separated from the objective means of production — a separation that in no way begins with force, but with the material gain of the ancient family group when it replaced communal ownership with individual property relations under the encouragement of the earliest instances of commodity exchange between neighboring family groups. Rather than force all the way down, it has been just as Engels stated: material gain all the way down.
Thus, Marx provides us with the critical key to understanding what neither the Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist critics of the Fascist State can explain, nor can be explained by the liberal and conservative apologists of Capital: not the use of force in exploitation, but consent within the democratic republic founded on universal suffrage to this exploitation, and particularly the role this universal suffrage plays in emergence of the Fascist State. Anyone trying to understand the argument of Marx and Engels by reading Maurice Dobbs or Paul Sweezy has already led himself into a theoretical cul-de-sac. Marx and Engels never assume the laborer is paid less than her product; rather, they assume precisely the opposite: the worker gains materially by entering into wage slavery with an utterly rapacious, vile, detestable parasite on the body human. This material gain need only be just significantly better than that which could be realized if the Mexican migrant instead remained on her small-holding.
What really has to be explained by any theory of historical development is why the numerically vastly superior mass of laborers, despite this Fascist State role, and despite the obvious consequences of this role, nevertheless voluntarily reproduce the relationship through their suffrage. To use one of Carson’s own analogies as the basis for furthering my argument:
Engels still did not show that exploitation was inherent in a given level of productive forces, without the use of coercion. He needed to show, not that parasitism depends on the preexistence of a host organism (duh!), but that it cannot be carried out without force. Every increase in economic productivity has created opportunities for robbery through a statist class system; but the same productive technology was always usable in non-exploitative ways. The fact that a given kind of class parasitism presupposes a certain form of productive technology, does not alter the fact that that form of technology has potentially both libertarian and exploitative applications, depending on the nature of the society which adopts it.
Carson employs the case of a parasite to argue against an alleged fallacy beneath Engels’ position that force presupposes material relations of production and does not create them. Carson explains that the existence of the host body does not, of itself, presuppose the parasitic infection. This is a good analogy since medicine has for the last 80 years actually introduced deadly live organisms into the human body under controlled circumstances precisely to inoculate humans from illnesses spread by these organisms. While the existence of the human body does not imply the existence of a parasite, the mere existence of the parasite in the human body does not imply an illness. In the case of inoculation it actually implies resistance to the illness caused by the parasite. You cannot argue that one condition necessarily implies the other — that coexistence of the use of force with exploitation implies the latter is dependent on the former, or vice versa. The two occur side by side throughout history, and, moreover, both influence and reinforce each other, and, at other times, altogether appear at loggerheads. Indeed history is replete with the use of force precisely aimed to overthrow existing modes of exploitation, and against the states that enforced these modes — our own Paris Commune is just one such instance.
The logical insufficiency of Carson’s force argument in this case is revealed when we inquire into how the most democratic of all republics — the United States — nevertheless appears most completely in the grip of monopoly interests. The State, in Carson’s argument, is constantly intervening in the market to enforce conditions of unequal exchange. Carson argues the intent of this intervention is to produce a material gain for monopoly:
Of course the use of force is aimed at the benefit of the user–who ever denied it? Who in his right mind would claim that exploitation is motivated by pure E-vill, rather than material gain? And since, by definition, means are always subordinate to ends, the ends are always more fundamental.
This reasoning appears to present no difficulty in certain previous incarnations of the State — the slave, for instance, did not enjoy universal suffrage — but, it’s actual practical failure as an explanation is revealed when it comes to explaining the democratic republic as the very instrument for enforcing the ruthless exploitation of the mass of society by a numerically small group of parasites. Having dispatched the materialist view of history, Carson should at least be required to offer an opinion on why a State based on universal suffrage, clearly dominated by a proletarian majority, might come to enforce circumstances where this proletarian majority are systematically robbed of their “natural wage” through unequal exchange with their own consent? What we have to explain is not, “pure E-vill” but, rather a complete lack of material gain to the majority of voters under the existing political relations of society.
Once you introduce the idea that capitalist exploitation is based on unequal exchange, you must now explain why the democratic republic continuously enforces this unequal exchange despite a obvious lack of material gain for the proletarian majority, and even at their expense. The easiest way to explain this, of course, is by identifying an obvious defect in existing political relations themselves — that, somehow, democracy is also infected with the parasite — that, in the words of Noam Chomsky, this consent is in some fashion manufactured, as he describes in a 1992 interview:
QUESTION: You write in Manufacturing Consent [(Pantheon, 1988)] that it’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. What are those interests?
CHOMSKY: Well, if you want to understand the way any society works, ours or any other, the first place to look is who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions. Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society — decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on — are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.
QUESTION: When we talk about manufacturing of consent, whose consent is being manufactured?
CHOMSKY: To start with, there are two different groups, we can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life — either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.
Innumerable variants of this silly thesis are employed by Libertarians, Anarchists and Marxists to explain how a Fascist State so clearly operating at the expense of the mass of society nevertheless enjoys their continued support or, at least, their apathy in the face of its ravages and predation. Marx’s theory, on the other hand, predicts precisely political support for the existing mode of exploitation, since he never assumes existing political relations are founded on anything other than the law of value, equal exchange, and material advantage accruing to both exploiter and exploited. It is the operation of the law of value itself, which encourages the small-holder to convert herself into a wage slave, that also ensures its continued existence, despite the obstacles Capital places in its own way, through the continuous intervention of the Fascist State.
The conclusion arrived at by Marx’s theory should be sobering for critical communist theory — the worker does not merely sell herself into slavery willingly, she also assures, through her political activity, that the conditions for her enslavement are maintained despite her exploitation. This conclusion cannot be ignored or jury-rigged out of existence by means of silly arguments based on alleged “social power”, unequal exchange, or manufactured consent. They must be faced squarely by critical communism. In this task, Carson’s mutualist synthesis of the dominant streams of critical communist theory is an utter failure.