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The General Assembly and social revolution

In his first address to the International Workingmen’s Association, Karl Marx noted two developments he thought were important backdrops to its founding, which he called, the “victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property”: 1. The fight for the ten hour day, and 2. The cooperative movement, which proved modern production did not need the profit motive and could be self-managed.

Marx argued:

After a 30 years’ struggle, fought with almost admirable perseverance, the English working classes, improving a momentaneous split between the landlords and money lords, succeeded in carrying the Ten Hours’ Bill. The immense physical, moral, and intellectual benefits hence accruing to the factory operatives, half-yearly chronicled in the reports of the inspectors of factories, are now acknowledged on all sides. Most of the continental governments had to accept the English Factory Act in more or less modified forms, and the English Parliament itself is every year compelled to enlarge its sphere of action. But besides its practical import, there was something else to exalt the marvelous success of this workingmen’s measure. Through their most notorious organs of science, such as Dr. Ure, Professor Senior, and other sages of that stamp, the middle class had predicted, and to their heart’s content proved, that any legal restriction of the hours of labor must sound the death knell of British industry, which, vampirelike, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too. In olden times, child murder was a mysterious rite of the religion of Moloch, but it was practiced on some very solemn occasions only, once a year perhaps, and then Moloch had no exclusive bias for the children of the poor. This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labor raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.

But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.

What I find interesting is that while he thought it was important enough to mention it at the time, this explicit contrast — the political economy of labor versus the political economy of property — does not seem to appear in the volumes of material written about his thinking — at least I see no evidence that it holds any prominent place in the scholarly work on Marx’s thinking.  Moreover, so far as I can tell, this formulation (two competing political economies) doesn’t even appear in any other work of his. At least, I can say, I have never encountered it before.

It is at times like this I wish he were alive so I could smack him — or at least, ask him why he spent so much time disclosing the “political economy of property” and so little time examining the “political economy of labor.” But, the answer is obvious: he wrote for, and to, working class. There was no need to disclose the “political economy of labor”, since it was already in a form the working class could immediately understand and grasp.

The “political economy of property”, what we today call economics and politics was the political economy of illusory being. While, in the “political economy of labor”, human beings were present already in their directly comprehensible actuality. This flows directly from his materialist conception of history: in their struggle and in their self-managed productive activity, the working class had no need for theory; no need for an “other” to explain to them what they were doing. What they are doing is directly comprehensible to them as the empirical response to their actual circumstances.

No one can render this response more profound, nor is there any need for special explanations of these activities. This is where he comes to conflict with others in the anarchist/socialist/communist movement of his day; this, I think, is the sole basis of his differences with other communist thinkers of the 19th Century: No one needed to dictate to the working class what it must do. No one needed to disclose to it the necessities of its own movement.

The problem with this view for many communist activists, I think, is that the “political economy of labor” is driven by the “political economy of property”. And, the political economy of property” is being driven by the concentration of property into an ever smaller number of hands. This is not just a concentration of economic power, it is also the concentration of political power (hence, political economy).

Many people will admit the inevitable concentration of economic power while treating the concentration of political power as accidental. Or, they treat the first as necessarily detached from the latter. In fact, both the concentration of economic power and the concentration of political power occur simultaneously.

Moreover, they not only proceed together, each reinforces the other. It is silly to expect, for instance, that you can have a world economy dominated by a handful of huge capitals, without implications for the politics of the nations composing the world economy.

But, this process not only proceeds with the concentration of economic and political power within each nation, but by competition between national capitals during which one national capital emerges as dominant over all the others. The lesser national capitals lose their sovereignty in one sphere after another, and their politics is hollowed out – although it appears, for some time after, on the surface, that nothing has changed.

In fact, everything has changed and this is revealed suddenly in a crisis.

For a time national politics continues as before — elections are held, the political gangs succeed each other to waste the nation’s wealth. In the crisis the apparent prosperity of these nations are revealed to be no more than income drawn on fictitious financial instruments issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, funded entirely by the profits squeezed from those nations themselves.

On the other hand, in the dominant nation, politics is driven by the broadening of the interest of property beyond the national borders. The state assumes the role of the manager of the interest of the total national capital, not so much as formerly within the confines of a single state, but in the interest of this national capital bound up with its far-flung holdings in every nation.

The Fascist State is, first and foremost, the manager of a global holding company, whose relation to the national politics is no more than that of company with an important, but subordinate subsidiary. The national politics is reduced to a mere department of its global interest. Where, and under what conditions, the extraction of surplus value occurs, is determined not by national politics, but by conditions within the world market as a whole. What factory is located where, which national labor force is to be used in which process, is determined by its global interest.

The “national interest” has completely escaped the sphere of national politics here as in the dependent nations. However, in the latter, the hollowing out of the national politics appears as the domination over the national politics of the interest of a foreign power, and, for this reason, is understood empirically by all classes in those nations as such; in the dominant nation it is less clear what the source of this disconnect between the national interest and the national politics might be.

How does this divorce between national interest and national politics arise? Where does it come from?

If the mystification of the national politics of the dependent nations consists entirely of an “other”, alien, national interest — and, thus, appears to be wholly foreign to its own “political economy of property”; the mystification inherent in the divorce of the national interest from the national politics of the dominant nation is altogether inexplicable because there is no outsider to blame for this divorce — no foreign interest, no external power dominating the national politics.

It is, on the one hand, far easier for the consciousness of the working class to be awakened in dependent nations for this reason, yet remain wholly within the bounds of mystification created by its dependent position; while it is of immensely more difficult to awaken the consciousness of the working class in the dominant nation. Yet, once awakened, the mystification of its actual position in society can very rapidly disappear.

If this hypothesis is correct, the significance of the GAs and of their predecessor, the Tea Party, is obvious. Once the working class of the dominant nation takes control of events into their own hands, all the mystifications and illusions of the “political economy of property” will vanish. In its place will be the political economy of labor — in which all relations between individuals will appear in their directly social form.

I love this shit!

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  1. March 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm

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