Home > General Comment, shorter work time > Postone’s take on the current crisis

Postone’s take on the current crisis

A new article (PDF) by Postone is likely one of the best things written by a Marxist on this crisis. In the critical segment posted on Principia Dialectia, Postone critiques, and demystifies, Hardt’s concept of value. This critique of Hardt shows why Postone remains the single most insightful Marxist scholar today. His reconstruction of Marx’s labor theory of value is one of the single most important theoretical accomplishments of our time.

To understand the far-reaching significance of the argument Postone makes in this piece, substitute the term “socially necessary labor time” for the term “value”.

Postone writes:

At the center of Hardt’s essay is the question of the possibility of a qualitatively different future, which he relates to the increasingly anachronistic character of the forms of quantitative measurability at the heart of capitalism. This problematic can be framed as one of the increasingly anachronistic characters of value. Although Hardt, at points, seems to suggest that the question of measurability is a function of the nature of that which is measured—material or immaterial—the question of measurability is, basically, one of commensurability. That, however, is not an ontological attribute of the objects themselves. Rather, it is a function of the nature of the social context within which they exist.

In Postone’s restatement of Hardt’s problematic, we can substitute the term “value” with the phrase “socially necessary labor time”:

This problematic can be framed as one of the increasingly anachronistic characters of [socially necessary labor time].

The last sentence in the quote is actually a restatement of Postone’s argument in Time, Labor and Social Domination, in which Postone fully anticipates Hardt’s argument, but on the basis of Marx’s value theory:

The system of wages, considered from the standpoint of material wealth, becomes a form of socially general distribution and only appears to be remuneration for labor time expenditure. It no longer has a basis in the production of material wealth; its systemic retention is a function of the value dimension alone.”

What Postone is saying is that value producing labor, socially necessary labor time, is increasingly superfluous to economic activity. But, as Postone argues:

The trajectory of value is such that it becomes anachronistic and, yet, at the same time, is reconstituted as necessary to the system.

Which is to say, while capital tends toward the abolition of socially necessary labor in society, it cannot realize this except at the expense of profit. Since profit is the motive of its activity, no matter how intensively capital works to abolish necessary labor, it must, in the end, continually reconstitute labor as the necessary condition of the worker’s existence. Thus, while socially necessary labor is increasingly superfluous to economic activity, superfluous labor is being constituted within the mode of production as necessary for the continued existence of the laborers themselves. Work must be constantly created anew, no matter how superfluous this work. The over-riding imperative of the is fascist state is job creation— in no case can hours of labor be allowed to fall..

This, of course, is a recapitulation of Postone’s revolutionary argument in Time, Labor and Social Domination, where he lays bare the limits of the capitalist mode of production:

With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential
of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.

In his criticism of Hardt, Postone continues in this track:

The notion of value’s increasingly anachronistic character is central to Hardt’s argument (even if his use of the term “value” is not the same as that presented here) and to considerations of a possible alternative future.

Hardt’s mystification of the notion of value prevents him from grasping the revolutionary potential latent in the working class’s own struggles. The “possible alternative future” Postone mentions is, of course, “the potential of the new forces of production” mentioned above, the one in which socially necessary labor has been abolished altogether — i.e., the higher stage of communism. It really is a very good statement by Postone — the best one on the crisis by a Marxist I have read thus far. Like Hardt, the Marxist academy, so far as I can tell, has been unable to employ Postone’s argument and has failed miserably to recognize its theoretical significance.

Explicit recognition of the theoretical significance of Postone’s argument is necessary both because Postone nails the question of superfluous labor and its relation to this crisis and the social revolution, but it is also necessary because, for some unknown reason, Postone pulls back from his argument, and makes the social revolution dependent not on the process he just outlined, but on what he calls, “different sorts of responses to the current crisis”. Postone seems to be suggesting the situation depends not on the increasing anachronism of value, but on the political responses to this increasing anachronism:

Historicizing value also implies that movements against capitalism must also be considered historically. The question of the historical conditions of revolt and revolution is not only one of their genesis but also of the sort of social order that could subsequently emerge. This is a fundamental historical question that cannot simply be bracketed. A lack of critical distance from uprisings and the absence of an inquiry into the nature of the new order likely to emerge can also be understood as a symptom of a sort of temporal disorientation that, arguably, characterizes our historical situation.

Different sorts of responses to the current crisis vary according to the degree to which they accept the present order as necessary. A very common response in the public sphere has been to demand better regulation of financial futures and options markets in order to curb the worst excesses of casino capitalism. Other responses have been on a more structural level, especially with regard to the distribution of wealth and power. Socioeconomic development in the past three decades has once again demonstrated that, without countervailing governmental policies, capitalism generates increasing inequality and insecurity. This, in turn, has elicited many social-democratic responses to the current crisis that call for a return to the sort of Keynesian/Fordist synthesis that marked the postwar decades. Many of the essays here, however, have, at least implicitly, called into question such widespread social-democratic responses. They have indicated, in a variety of ways, that the consolidation of that social-democratic synthesis in the decades following World War II depended on historical conditions that are no longer present.

This is where Postone muddies his own argument. For some reason, Postone swerves from his own conclusion at the last minute by suggesting the various political responses to the crisis may not be determined by the increasing anachronism of socially necessary labor time. This is wrong and mars the clarity of his essential argument. If, as Postone argues, the increasingly anachronistic character of value producing labor “raises the question of a possible future qualitatively different from the present order”, we already know this future is materially foreshadowed by this fact alone and not the various political responses to it. These responses are themselves shrouded in just the sort of mystification that finds its theoretical expression in Hardt’s notion of value.

As Postone states, materially, the increasingly anachronistic character of socially necessary labor itself requires a fundamental transformation not only of the mode of distribution but of the mode of production:

The notion, mentioned earlier, that value becomes historically anachronistic implies that value-creating labor also becomes anachronistic, even while remaining necessary for capitalism. More and more labor is being rendered superfluous, even as the organization of capitalist society remained predicated on its existence. One result is a growing maldistribution of labor time between an overworked segment of society and one that is essentially without work. This is no longer a conjunctural question as it, perhaps, had been during the Great Depression, but it has become a structural one.

Postone’s argument suggests that the “critical distance’ necessary for Marxists to achieve from the current spate of working class uprisings is not a distance that concerns itself with a critiques of the superficial political expressions of these uprisings, but one that shows theoretically how these superficial expressions are related to the underlying material processes they prefigure or foreshadow. Rather than impotently declaring these superficial political actions insufficient in the usual sectarian Marxist style, Marxists should be showing how even these limited demands point beyond their own limitations to a practical critique of existing society.

All of these uprisings — from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street are a more or less concealed or mystified war between the working class and capital over what constitutes hours of necessary labor — up to and including the complete abolition of labor itself. Our job is not to reinvent the workers own movement, but to lay bare to the proletarians the revolutionary significance of their own practical activity.

  1. May 14, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Postone’s argument is too heavily indebted to the machine fragment of the Grundrisse, and pays insufficient attention to Marx’s development of the category of abstract labor in Capital.

    It is indeed true that capital strives to reduce the abstract labor socially necessary for the production of a commodity, but he completely ignores the other half of Marx’s argument:

    “The value of a commodity is, in itself, of no interest to the capitalist. What alone interests him, is the surplus-value that dwells in it, and is realisable by sale. Realisation of the surplus-value necessarily carries with it the refunding of the value that was advanced. Now, since relative surplus-value increases in direct proportion to the development of the productiveness of labour, while, on the other hand, the value of commodities diminishes in the same proportion; since one and the same process cheapens commodities, and augments the surplus-value contained in them; we have here the solution of the riddle: why does the capitalist, whose sole concern is the production of exchange-value, continually strive to depress the exchange-value of commodities? A riddle with which Quesnay, one of the founders of Political Economy, tormented his opponents, and to which they could give him no answer.

    “You acknowledge,” he says, “that the more expenses and the cost of labour can, in the manufacture of industrial products, be reduced without injury to production, the more advantageous is such reduction, because it diminishes the price of the finished article. And yet, you believe that the production of wealth, which arises from the labour of the workpeople, consists in the augmentation of the exchange-value of their products.” [7]

    The shortening of the working day is, therefore, by no means what is aimed at, in capitalist production, when labour is economised by increasing its productiveness. [8] It is only the shortening of the labour-time, necessary for the production of a definite quantity of commodities, that is aimed at. The fact that the workman, when the productiveness of his labour has been increased, produces, say 10 times as many commodities as before, and thus spends one-tenth as much labour-time on each, by no means prevents him from continuing to work 12 hours as before, nor from producing in those 12 hours 1,200 articles instead of 120. Nay, more, his working day may be prolonged at the same time, so as to make him produce, say 1,400 articles in 14 hours. In the treatises, therefore, of economists of the stamp of MacCulloch, Ure, Senior, and tutti quanti [the like], we may read upon one page, that the labourer owes a debt of gratitude to capital for developing his productiveness, because the necessary labour-time is thereby shortened, and on the next page, that he must prove his gratitude by working in future for 15 hours instead of 10. The object of all development of the productiveness of labour, within the limits of capitalist production, is to shorten that part of the working day, during which the workman must labour for his own benefit, and by that very shortening, to lengthen the other part of the day, during which he is at liberty to work gratis for the capitalist. How far this result is also attainable, without cheapening commodities, will appear from an examination of the particular modes of producing relative surplus-value, to which examination we now proceed.”

    • May 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      Where, in your opinion,does Postone ignore this observation?

  2. May 14, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Postone is fond of quoting that famous passage from the machine fragment concerning how labor must at some point cease to be the measure of wealth, since Marx is confronted with the apparent paradox of labor-time being the measure of wealth in capitalist societies, while at the same time capitalists seek to reduce socially necessary labor-time.

    But in Capital, that paradox is resolved. The capitalist is not concerned with the absolute quantity of socially necessary labor-time required to produce a commodity. The capitalist is only concerned with the surplus that exceeds that quantity.

    All this talk of socially necessary labor time being an “anachronism” seems to rest upon that faulty presumption based upon a limited reading of only Marx’s earlier, preparatory work, and not his later, mature theory in Capital.

    I would contest that the value-form is only “anachronistic” once we have succeeded in abolishing it. Until then, it unfortunately continues to mediate social life.

    • May 14, 2012 at 9:27 pm

      I’m sorry but I miss your point on this; perhaps you could expand on it. Are you suggesting that the over-riding imperative of the fascist state is not job creation? Are you suggesting the growth in non-productive work, cited by many Marxist researchers other than Postone, is a figment of their imagination? Are you suggesting the rapid expansion of the financial sector observed in the past two decades is not the result of capital saturation? Just what are you suggesting in this argument?

  3. May 15, 2012 at 4:22 am

    “I’m sorry but I miss your point on this; perhaps you could expand on it. ”

    It’s really simple: Postone calls value an “anachronism”, which it clearly is not. Social life is still mediated by the forms of the commodity and money, and will continue to be so long as we don’t put an end to that.

    His use of the term “anachronism” rests upon his over-emphasis on an argument found in the machine fragment of the Grundrisse, a passage which suggests that the drive to reduce socially necessary labor-time presents an unresolved paradox for the capitalist mode of production.

    But in Vol. I of Capital, Marx had resolved that apparent paradox: this movement to reduce socially necessary labor-time is the basis of what Marx calls “relative surplus-value”.

    “Are you suggesting that the over-riding imperative of the fascist state is not job creation?”

    To the extent that there is an “over-riding imperative of the fascist state”, I would say it consists in the pacification of social antagonisms. But it seems strange to me to look for one single “over-riding imperative” to fascism. During the end period of National Socialist Germany, the over-riding imperative was to commit genocide.

    “Are you suggesting the growth in non-productive work, cited by many Marxist researchers other than Postone, is a figment of their imagination?”

    Just to get our terms straight, how are you defining “non-productive work”? In the sense that Marx does in the Theories of Surplus-Value, or in the sense that he does in Capital Vol. 2?

    “Are you suggesting the rapid expansion of the financial sector observed in the past two decades is not the result of capital saturation?”

    The notion that a large financial sector is a sign of capitalist decline is popular with traditional Marxists, who tend to view the productive sphere as “real” and money and finance as merely epiphenomenal, but this is not Marx’s conception; Marx regards the credit system as the driving entity of the capitalist mode of production.

    • May 15, 2012 at 7:35 am

      I am sorry, but it seems you do not have an argument here. What you have are a series of unrelated statements that in no way lead us any closer to understanding our present situation. Perhaps you can take the time to present a counter-argument that, if not as exhaustive as Postone’s, is at least coherent enough to understand. Please take all the time and space you think necessary here to make that argument.

      • David
        December 6, 2012 at 8:22 am

        That is a little harsh. Negative potential has provided a clear account of his position. What you have not done is provide him with a useful clarification concerning Postone’s point regarding “value.” As I understand it, Postone is well aware that capitalism (production and distribution) is mediated by the value-relation – however, he thinks this form of mediation is anachronistic. He thinks this because the production of relative surplus value fundamentally transforms the forces of production such that the extraction of human labour time in the abstract is no longer materially necessary.

  4. May 15, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I presented you with a very specific criticism of Postone’s use of the word “anachronism” with regard to the value-form, and why his false usage stems from his preferential attitude towards the machine fragment of the Grundrisse rather than paying attention to Marx’s development of the category of relative surplus-value in Vol. I of Capital.

    You then throw a series of disconnected rhetorical questions at me, and are then dissatisfied with my follow-up questions to your rhetorical questions?

    How about discussing in good faith, rather than acting defensive about Postone’s haphazard use of Marx’s categories.

    • May 15, 2012 at 11:02 am

      No. What you did is make an assertion. You in no way demonstrated Postone argues against the idea “Social life is still mediated by the forms of the commodity and money, and will continue to be so long as we don’t put an end to that.” The argument Postone makes is both that value is increasingly anachronistic AND that it is simultaneously being reconstituted by capital.

      If you want to score points against Postone, please at least follow his entire argument and explain why this complete argument is wrong.

      The questions I “threw” at you were not disconnected, but get to the practical expression of Postone’s argument:

      1. If capital must continually reconstitute labor as socially necessary even as value increasingly becomes anachronistic, this is expressed most clearly in the effort of the fascist state to continually create fictitious work, aka fiscal and monetary “full employment” policies.

      2. If labor time must expand even as socially necessary labor is being rendered increasingly anachronistic, this must give rise to labor time that is being expended wastefully, or in non-productive ways.

      3. If in fact the increasing anachronism of value presupposes capital is saturated, this must give rise to what Marx referred to as “over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population.” Postone’s critique of Hardt points to precisely this sort of pathology.

      I am not the least bit defensive — you fucking Marxists need to pull your heads out of your collective asses and get a clue. I will continue to dump shit on you all until you figure this out. This is not some university debating exercise — what we are talking about here has real world implications for the working class!

  5. May 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    I would greatly appreciate it if you would develop the idea that the revolution is directly social.

    In My May Day Post you argue that for Marx the proletariat is not a class so much as it is “the detritus of the decomposition of class society itself. This is the proletarians, who no longer form a class in any sense of that term, and whose very existence materially is simply constituted out of the process of decomposition of class society. Contrary to decades of accumulated Marxist dogma, in Marx’s theory the proletarians cannot develop a class consciousness because they are not a class, do not come into existence as a class, are incapable of acquiring the characteristics of a class, and already materially express the disintegration of class society.”

    The proletariat is a class with no interests of its own, that is, is has a kind of negative universality: a class that is universally wronged. Marx explicitly theorizes the proletariat as without property and without properties, as free in a double sense.

    From this you seem to draw the conclusion that politics can only refer to interest, and since the proletariat has no interests, it can only be anti-political.

    The second aspect of this is that you conceive of revolution and communism as directly social in two aspects: firstly, that it has no interests to assert, as we noted above, but secondly that the revolution is not political but economic, that they must “abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto…, namely, labour… In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State.” (Marx, German Ideology)

    The idea of the directly social indicates a lack of mediation between the social and the individual, that is, the dissolution of any distance between the individual and the social. Postone does seem to agree with this at one level since he distinguishes between social relations “understood essentially in terms of class relations” versus understood as “forms of social mediation expressed by categories such as value and capital.”

    However, I think that for Postone, as for Marx, the question is not whether or not mediation is abolished, but what manner of social mediation is constitutive of another world. In “Notes on Capital”, he refers to capitalist social mediation repeatedly as “abstract”, “objectified”, “alienated”, “quasi-independent”, all of which indicate other, possible kinds of social mediation.

    Postone definitely holds to the idea of a kind of political mediation, though he barely fleshes it out in any way in his book.

    Marx’s work at least indicates that Directly social ≠ liberatory because the kind of directly social forms of relations he refers to are slavery and feudalism.

    There is also the problem that Marx never rejects politics and “working class political action”, but rejects time and again what he calls “abstentionism” and “political indifferentism”.

    I think Marx expresses what is at issue in a fairly clear manner in his Conspectus on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy: “it [roughly, “use of the state”] only means that, as the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside. Mr Bakunin concludes from this that it is better to do nothing at all… just wait for the day of general liquidation — the last judgement.”

    As a side note, your conceptualization reminds me of the communisation milieu around Theorie Communiste, Endnotes, riff raff, etc. insofar as it is anti-political, but in a way, you really much more remind me of Monsieur DuPont, the Insipidities blog, Letters Journal, et al.


    • May 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      Ha! My mother says I remind her of her brother, and constantly calls me “David” — so I am used to reminding people of other people. Give me a couple of days to think about your other questions. I will get back to you with a response.

    • May 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      The idea that the social revolution is directly social is already given in the fact that it is a social revolution, which is to say, it aims not at the replacement of one form of the old society with another but at the abolition of the old society. This old society is based on labor, property and the state — all of which are abolished in this social revolution. The basis of this new society is directly social labor, in which the old division of labor is overthrown and replaced by an association of social producers, who subjugate their activity to their common control.

      Permit me to take exception with several of your statements:

      1. I do not “draw the conclusion that politics can only refer to interest, and since the proletariat has no interests, it can only be anti-political.” As you very well know, Marx’s theory makes the argument the working class must overthrow the state. If this is not anti-political, I do not know what is.

      2. I do not “conceive of revolution and communism as directly social”, Marx’s theory argues the organization of communism “is, therefore, essentially economic, the material production of the conditions of this unity; it turns existing conditions into conditions of unity.” This, as you will recognize, is not my statement but his.

      3. I do not argue the “directly social indicates a lack of mediation between the individual and the social” — this is your statement and not one I made. If I were to offer this argument I would simply refer to Marx’s argument that “The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”

      4. I cannot make Postone’s argument for him. If you have problems with Postone, you should address your questions to him. I am not in a position to comment on Postones use of terms like “abstract”, “objectified”, “alienated”, “quasi-independent”; nor do I know if, for him, this implies other forms of mediation. I just know Marx argued: “The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”

      5. If you have a citation where Marx refers to slavery as a directly social relation in the sense you know I am speaking of, please let me see it.

      6. You refer specifically to Marx’s criticism of Bakunin, who, Marx asserts, wants simply to do nothing at all until judgement day. Well, I’m convinced by that citation — NOT! Ha! Okay, let’s assume for a moment there is a “day of liquidation — the last judgement.” This would be the day when, no matter what the working class or capitalist class attempts, the collapse of capitalism finally occurs. Let’s further assume that day is next Tuesday, May 22, 2012.

      Marx wrote those words about Bakunin sometime around April 1874, fully 138 years before the “day of general liquidation”. If Marx accepted Bakunin’s solution, the working class would simply sit on its hands for 138 years; through 2 world wars, and 4 depressions. Even assuming Martin Nicholas is correct in his reading of Marx — that Marx saw communism as a distant prospect — Bakunin’s solution is untenable. It is untenable, first, because, if for no other reason, distribution within the capitalist mode of production is settled by competition alone. It is also untenable because, as autonomists argue, it is precisely the struggles of the working class that compels capitalist development.

      The argument Marx makes against Bakunin, which Marxists to this day don’t grasp, is that the working class always acts on the basis of the old society and its political forms until it liberates itself from these conditions. These conditions, however, are not fixed and given: they are at one stage of development in 1874 and another in 2012. To transport Marx’s argument from 1874 against Bakunin to today, just one week before the “general liquidation”, seems wrong to me.

      This is not to say Marx’s argument can’t be applied to today but it does imply we are not trying to build on the material conditions of 1874 — in which the working class was looking at at least 140 years of capitalism.

  6. Chris Wright
    May 18, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    On “directly social”, thank you for the clarification on what you mean in reference to revolution, that it is abolition of the social order, but then why the term “direct”? Direct generally indicates “immediacy” or maybe to the point, as in “not indirect”, but in German philosophy after Kant, things like “direct” and “immediate” are loaded terms.

    On point 1, I did say “seem to draw” and that is because you seem to associate “politics” with having distinct class interests. Also, overthrowing the state is not the same as anti-political. Marx always made clear the need to overthrow the state and yet never rejected engaging in politics and frequently excoriated those who did. Whether or not Marx was correct to do so is another matter.

    On point 2, the road to Hell is paved with good quotations. Quoting Marx neither proves nor clarifies in many cases.

    On point 3, yes, of course it was my statement, I was probing to see what you meant by “directly social.” You again quote, but you don’t clarify.

    On point 4, you can’t argue for Postone but you can argue for Marx, or rather, quote him, from the same quote as in point 3. I also don’t have a problem with Postone on this per se.

    On point 5, I had no idea in what sense you were speaking of “directly social”, and it is only slightly clearer now. Marx uses the term “directly social in its form” in reference to the 3rd peculiarity of the equivalent form of value, which is mistranslated in the English. “Private labor becomes the form of its opposite, labor directly social in its form” indicates that the essence of capital is still directly social labor, but that its form or mode of existence is private labor. This is not the case in Ancient Greece and this is why Aristotle could not unravel the other peculiarities of the value-form. In Ancient Greece, labor was directly social qua tied to a specific station and as such was not commensurable.

    In the section on the Fetish Character of the Commodity, in the paragraph after Robinson Crusoe, Marx says:
    RE: feudalism “Here the particular and natural form of labour, [and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form,] is the immediate social form of labour.”
    RE: earlier forms “For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour, we have no occasion to go back to that spontaneously developed form which we find on the threshold of the history of all civilised races.” And if you look at fn. 31, Marx is not referring to pre-class societies.
    In the same para: “The different kinds of labour, …which result in the various products, are in themselves, and such as they are, direct social functions… ”

    There is also the section on The Genesis of Capital Ground Rent in Vol. 3
    ” It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct labourer remains the “possessor” of the means of production and labour conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relation of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labour to a mere tributary relationship. The direct producer, according to our assumption, is to be found here in possession of his own means of production, the necessary material labour conditions required for the realisation of his labour and the production of his means of subsistence. He conducts his agricultural activity and the rural home industries connected with it independently. This independence is not undermined by the circumstance that the small peasants may form among themselves a more or less natural production community, as they do in India, since it is here merely a question of independence from the nominal lord of the manor.”

    On point 6, my point was quite simple, as Bakunin does not reject action, but politics, as you seem quite clearly to as well. I don’t object that the material conditions in 2012 are not those of 1874. Quite the contrary, I don’t think that revolution in 2012 would look much like it would have in 1874, 1917, 1936, or 1968. However, I haven’t seen you clarify what the changed conditions are that make Marx correct in 1874 and Bakunin correct in 2012 that would justify the blanket condemnation of politics in exactly the manner you mention: “the working class always acts on the basis of the old society and its political forms until it liberates itself from these conditions.”

    The only strong indicator I have seen is that apparently “The state” is now permanently “the fascist state”, and maybe that is the difference? I don’t find it clear.

    • May 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      I do not “reject” politics. What I reject is the idea that this politics cannot be anti-political. Much as we are talking about a class that is not a class, we should understand that the “politics” of this class is not political. Superficially, the working class can be divided up between Democrat and Republican, Tea Party and Occupy, right and left, progressive and reactionary. These divisions, however, are only superficial appearances which in no sense disclose what this class is, and what it is trying to blindly accomplish. To limit our examination to these superficial appearances reduces Marx’s theory to the sort of talking head punditry of CNN, MSNBC or FoxNews.

      Marx threw down a gauntlet to us:

      “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”

      It seems to me this statement argues no movement of the working class can be historically assessed based solely on the surface appearance of the ideas dominant among its members. We, however, are lazy and want our understanding of these movements delivered to us on a platter during primetime television.

      Yes, on the surface the Tea Party looks very menacing — so much so that some Marxists vote Democrat every chance they get. And to other Marxists the Occupy is a “dismal failure”. Moreover the political poles of opinion which these two movements express may appear, in the case of the Occupy, to turn back the clock to the 1960s as one Marxist commented on here, or even back to the rise of the fascist state as apparently most Marxists believe about the Tea Party; but in no case can Marxist explain why these movements appear in their superficial and ahistorical analysis in forms that are clearly historically outmoded.

  7. May 21, 2012 at 10:05 am

    The quote you take from The Holy Family is more complicated if you read it along with the paragraph as a whole in which it is situated. For example, two sentences prior Marx says,

    “Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself.”

    Clearly Marx believed that 1) the proletariat had gained a theoretical consciousness of that loss, and 2) the inhuman conditions of life compel the proletariat “directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself.” The first point is only true in the weakest sense, that the theoretical comprehension of capital is fairly highly developed, but today not among the global wage-labor. The second point does not hold for a large portion of the proletariat whose inhuman conditions subsist side-by-side with an amount of material wealth incomprehensible to the proletariat of the 19th century.

    Marx poses this self-emancipation as “abolishing the conditions of its own life” and “all the inhuman conditions of life of society today.” However, “inhuman conditions” has a different meaning than it did in 1844. Today, for some inhuman conditions refer to the wage-labor conditions, as Chinese Foxcon workers can attest to. For others, inhuman conditions are tied to their essentially permanent exclusion from wage-labor in a world completely driven my money, thus pushing them into the most desperate situations, from the global sex and drug trade to piracy or simply roaming from one place to the next in hope of finding something, and all of the above, but in a condition that has nothing in common with “the stern but steeling school of labour” Marx emphasizes in the sentence immediately prior to the section you quote. There are also the inhuman conditions of the spectacle, the rote meaninglessness of everyday life in which we exist more and more simply to reproduce capital (including ourselves), which does not however necessarily entail material poverty. This inhumanity is more difficult to recognize, to experience as systemic, as requiring the abolition of the conditions of one’s own life.

    This does not mean that your quote is not broadly correct, but it was not a statement of pure universality, but couched in a moment of Marx’s conviction that there was only one direction for the wage-laborer to go in relation to the inhuman conditions and that they were being driven to become conscious of this necessity.

    Only then does the section you quote follow, and then it is followed in the last sentence by Marx’s note that “There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.” Marx makes it quite clear that it is important that this goal become conscious, and that in his mind it was already becoming so n 1844.

    He was clear on this already in 1843 in a letter to Arnold Ruge:
    “We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

    I cannot refuse to look at what the Tea Party milieu actually does, how it relates to other similar post-fascist elements globally like the Jobbik Party, Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, the National Front in France, etc., and how these relate to actual changes in the organization of global capital and the situation that it is under capital’s power that labor is being abolished for billions of people under conditions where selling one’s labor is more important than ever for procuring the means to survive.

    Could you explain, or put a link where you have already done so, how you justify the constant reference to “the fascist state”? It seems to me that this falls victim to a “superficial and ahistorical analysis” which uses concepts that are “historically outmoded.”

    • May 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      Really good points all — and I really mean that. Give me a couple of days to think about what you said.

      For a sketch of my argument on the fascist state and its political economy see here: http://wp.me/pgA5p-2xv

  8. May 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you. I will read your piece over the next few days as well.

  1. May 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm
  2. June 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm

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