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Review: Marx’s Economics for Anarchists, by Wayne Price

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Wayne Price

Wayne Price’s “Marx’s Economics for Anarchists” makes the fatal error of treating Marx’s Capital as a description of how the economy works. This mistake Price makes is on the order of treating Einstein’s Theory as a description of how H-Bombs work. I suppose, in some limited fashion, Marx does give something approaching a description of “how capitalism works.” But, this was neither his project, nor even the most significant aspect of his life works. Even from the point of view of an anarchist like Price and his audience, what Marx explains in Capital of economic interest is insignificant.

As Anitra Nelson points out, Marx ignores significant features of Capitalism even in his own day. Already in Marx’s time the credit system was of far more importance in the economy than gold (commodity) money. Although Marx argued credit money was a “higher form” of money than gold, he almost entirely ignored it, and its technical details. If his project was to explain how a capitalist economy worked, this fact would be completely inexplicable.

To understand what Marx’s project was in undertaking Capital, you have to look at the questions Marx was trying to answer before Capital. Marx was solely concerned about the historical process by which “man returns to himself.” To try to yank Marx analysis of the process of capitalist production and exchange from this context is to grasp hold of the shit end of his project. I want state at the outset that I do not mean to imply his theory as written in Capital isn’t relevant. I am just trying to explain why Marx wasn’t an economist. Wayne Price makes the argument that Marx is relevant to anarchists because of his economics, not his politics, but this is an error. Actually, Marx’s relevancy has nothing to do with his economics or his politics. His real contribution was to lay out the historical process by which we regain ourselves as social creatures.

One common form of misunderstanding of Marx’s Capital goes like this:

“Marx proved/showed how the capitalist exploited the worker.”

This statement is something akin to the myth that folks in Columbus’ day thought the earth was flat. It was, in fact, common knowledge in Marx’s that labor was the source of wealth. Marx did not need three volumes of Capital – perhaps more – to explain that the capitalist gained his profits from the labor of the worker. Surplus value or Profit were not all that much of a mystery. (In fact, Marx theory was reproduced independently by a self-educated worker, Joseph Dietzgen.)

Marx’s object with Capital was not to lay out a detailed description of how a capitalist economy works nor did he intend simply to explain to the worker how she was exploited. Rather, his intent was to examine the historical process by which we as human beings would regain ourselves as social individuals. Wayne Price although providing, I think, a service to his anarchist audience by offering a review of the laws of capital Marx disclosed, perhaps does a greater disservice to them by taking Marx examination of Capital from its context.

Anitra Nelson, who, in the introduction to her book, Marx’s Concept of Money, rejects Marx as inadequate, actually does a greater service to the reader by detailing what she believes is the inadequacy of Marx’s concept of money. One statement in particular that I like of Nelson’s argument is that Marx’s concept of money is less a technically useful analysis of money, and more a philosophical-political argument lacking technical details — a lack she thinks continues through his entire works. Nelson writes:

Marx’s perception and analysis of money is conducted at a very high and all- encompassing level of abstraction.

At another point she states:

It seems easier to relate to a quasipolitical and esoteric Young Hegelian intellectual context than to ordinary economic theories of money or finance.

Nelson believes she is calling Marx’s analysis of money into question in this passage; but, what she is really calling into question is the accepted interpretation of Marx’s intent in his examination of money. This accepted interpretation is expressed in the two schools of thought regarding Marx’s argument about money: nominalist versus commodity. The first school holds to the idea that Marx’s argument on money must lend support to those who think money is an idea, whose value is determined by value consciousness. The second school holds that money for Marx is a commodity — gold or some other commodity.

Nelson argues:

Because Marx’s writings are so vague, sociological and philosophical here, one can only say at this point [the middle 1840s] that he could develop a nominalist theory of money without contradicting much of what he has already said about it. Equally he could say all that he already has and still regard ‘proper’ money as a commodity, say gold.

She concludes, erroneously:

What seems most probable is that he has adapted Young Hegelian phraseology without at this stage being conscious of its rather nominalist tone. He is not yet steeped in the traditional economic literature of monetary theory which is divided between nominalist and commodity theories of money.

Although I disagree with the general characterization here, I think Nelson is correct to state Marx was neither a nominalist nor a believer in commodity money — he really did not give a fuck. What served as money was not his interest at all — money itself was his interest: What role did money play in the social process of man returning to himself as a social individual?

This historical process had to go through money, because only by passing through money did the private activity of individuals become social. People did not directly exchange their labor, they exchanged the products of their labor, and money was the mediator of this exchange. The emergence of the social individual, an individual who engaged in directly social labor, passes through money as a historical phase. Money becomes the god of practical activity, because only through money do the material advantages of social cooperation get realized. The historical process, as Marx observed in the German Ideology, is continuous: money arises out of exchange, and becomes a power ruling over society with its conversion into Capital — self-expanding value. All of this insight is lost if we take Marx out of context and treat him as just another economist, no matter how infamous or extraordinary.

At another point, Nelson points out the lack of technical detail in Marx’s treatment of the credit system:

[Marx] fails to treat or recognise some of the special characteristics of credit or credit monies, regarding only a pure paper currency as possible, and not a pure paper money.

What I find so interesting about this statement is that Nelson rightly calls into question Marx’s entire notion of money in this observation. Marx argues money must, in the final analysis, be gold or some other commodity; yet not one significant money today is based on a commodity. Marx really looks like a clown on this one — a rank amateur who got one of the most important categories of political-economy wrong.

The other possible conclusion is quite breathtaking: money was actually abolished during the Great Depression by all nations within the space of a couple of years; which is to say, money no longer exists.

This is a dividing line: either Marx was a clown and got money wrong; or money no longer exists. You cannot have it both ways on this subject. Yet, folks who call themselves Marxist economists treat the dollar as if it is money. And, they try to twist Marx’s statement to fit the reality of modern post-Great Depression currencies. So, which is it? Okay, so let’s not rush into any conclusion on this — perhaps there is the third choice, I don’t know about.

Well, then we have to look at another observation of Marx regarding money: in a money system the real need to be satisfied is money. Nelson writes:

Money ‘mediates’ between the need and its fulfilment, between the natural and the social, between one [person] and another.

She also states:

As the means to purchase, money gives access to all objects and becomes the ‘only’ and the ‘true need produced by the economic system’.

While people engaged in a collective act of production to meet their needs as individuals, the use of money as mediator of their activities has the effect of turning the billions of discrete particular individual needs into the single over-riding general need in society for money. On the one hand, all individual need becomes, as a practical matter, the need for money; not food clothing or shelter, but money to buy them. All the particular needs of individuals, which are really singular and incommensurable become, in money, values relative to each other. The particular useful qualities of these objects serve no role or function in the economy, but exist for the economy only as exchange values. In their place is one need ruling over the actions of all individuals: MONEY.

But, at a certain point in history this money is replaced by an instrument of exchange controlled exclusively by the state and monopolized by it. In the money system all real, material, specific and noncomensurable needs of individuals is reduced to its most abstract form: money need. In the post-Great Depression system, this money need is further reduced to the rule of a totally capricious and arbitrary political regime.

Anyone who misses this implication of Marx’s theory, knows nothing of the argument he is making. When Marx argues money must be a commodity he is not simply making an argument about money, but also about the implications of its abolition: the abolition of money within the confines of the capitalist mode of production converts money need into an unregulated fascist state power. This is not a power that can be regulated or constrained by society through mere political means, since is presupposes absolute dependence of society on the very power it is trying to regulate and constrain.

So, in the 1840s, before he has become an anarchist, before he has become a communist and before he has become enshrined as the founder of that complete waste of human effort known as “Marxism”, Marx has already explained everything about capitalism that is necessary to understand about it: the premise of the worker’s existence is her absolute dependence on the very thing that destroys her as a human being.

Antistatists who base their argument against the state on moral grounds of “opposition to coercion”, don’t really understand the problem posed by the fascist state in this regard. The problem is not coercion, but the universal dependence of society on this indifferent, impersonal, power that determines the material premise of society. Even if we assume no employment of coercion in the exercise of political power, the state would not be a whit less of an intolerable power.

Remove the police, remove the military, remove all regulatory functions from the state, and this power will still be intolerable.

This is because the intolerable power is not and has never been constituted by force — although coercion often accompanies it in history. Anarchists like Wayne Price who want to discount Marx’s pre-Capital insights, and his post-Capital arguments with anarchists like Bakunin will simply never understand this: the intolerable power is constituted by the individual herself; it is the content of her activity. It is not imposed on her, it is not forced on her, it does not insert itself into her life from outside — the intolerable power is her own activity, which has become intolerable to her.

This is why she makes the social revolution — not to overthrow the state, property, money, corruption, etc.; but to overthrow her own previous mode of activity, wage labor, which daily and hourly constitutes and recreates the former. This is what is so significant about the Tea Party and the Occupy movement: we are looking for forms within which our self-activity is directly social; of association based on individual needs

I think Wayne Price has done a lot of good by publishing his book, and I applaud it — I urge folks to read it at Anarkismo.net. If it gets anarchists to take another look at Marx, this cannot be bad. However, it should be read while keeping in mind what I have stated above.

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