Marx’s Inconvenient Truth for Marxism and the Left
In 2003, Michael Lebowitz asked an interesting question: What Keeps Capitalism Going? What explains the persistence of an exploitative relationship in which the working class must sell their labor power to the capitalists who own the means of production. This latter group — the capitalists — have no concern for the workers, Lebowitz explains; they have only two interests in the outcome of this exchange: profits and more profits. The purchase of the worker’s labor power allows the capitalist to direct the workers in the act of production for the purpose of producing more capital; and this new capital goes back into the process of producing even more capital. According to Lebowitz this was what Marx was trying to tell us in books like Capital:
This was the central message that Marx was attempting to communicate to workers. What is capital? It is the workers’ own product which has been turned against them, a product in the form of tools, machinery—indeed, all the products of human activity (mental and manual).
When I read this passage, I wondered why Lebowitz considers the capitalist exploitation of the worker to be the central message Marx wanted to communicate to the working class? In the 19th Century almost everyone knew labor was the source of the wealth capital produced — even bourgeois economists admitted it. The capitalist and worker engaged in constant conflict over both the division of the working day and, more importantly, over its length. Is Lebowitz suggesting working people are now too dense to understand how their companies make money? But I thought, okay, so let’s see where he is taking us with this revelation.
Before turning to the question posed in the title of his post, Lebowitz addresses another, slightly off-topic, question: “How do capitalists increase their capital by increasing the exploitation of workers?” Lebowitz argues this is accomplished by several means: 1. They have to get more work out of the workers in the same period of time; 2. they have to get more total labor time from the workers; 3. they have to pay them less in wages; and 4. they have to deny them access to science and knowledge. Capital is constantly trying to expand the total social workday and increase its intensity, while keeping down wages and denying the working class access to the fruits of its social labor. How does capital accomplish these four goals? Lebowitz tells us,
In particular, it does so by separating workers, by turning them against each other.
Okay, I thought, Lebowitz better have a more robust answer than this simple-minded bullshit. He is making what could be called the “Pimp Theory” of capitalism. This theory proposes the poor sex worker is somehow compelled by the pimp to prostitute herself against her own better judgement. The sex worker would never get it into her own head to sell herself; it is the pimp’s threats, violence, or charm that lead her astray. Likewise, Lebowitz wants us to believe the worker would never voluntarily sell herself into wage slavery if she knew the capitalist gets richer by this act; she must be tricked or cajoled into it.
Personally, I have in my family history, sharecroppers who looked on wage slavery as the promised land. I am pretty sure no one in my family had to be dragged kicking and screaming from Alabama to their new job at General Motors. And I am pretty damned sure no one has to put a gun to the head of a Mexican citizen to make her cross the border in search of a job. Millions of immigrants streamed across the Atlantic and Pacific to find work in the United States; and millions more still move from one country to the next trying to sell themselves into wage slavery today. But this idea the worker would never sell herself if she knew she was being exploited is just the sort of silly shit that continues to get traction among Marxists and the rest of the “Left”. There just has to be some hidden tricked employed by the capitalist to explain wage slavery, right? Lebowitz continues in this vein of stupidity:
The logic of capital has nothing to do with the needs of human beings. So practices such as the use of racism and patriarchy to divide workers, the use of the state to outlaw or crush trade unions, the destruction of people’s lives by shutting down operations and moving to parts of the world where people are poor, unions banned, and environmental regulations nonexistent—are not accidental but the product of a society in which human beings are simply means for capital.
So the capitalist employs racism, patriarchy. state laws, capital export, etc., to pursue its ends — ends for which the worker is mere means. Satisfied with this explanation, Lebowitz dismisses further discussion with a wave of his hand:
We could go on about the character of capitalism, but I think the point is clear.
I am sorry, but Lebowitz’s point is not clear to me at all. Where is the constant improvement of machinery, plant and equipment that multiplies the productive power of labor in this explanation? Where are the scientific breakthroughs, and applications of digital and other technologies to reduce the quantity of labor necessary to create a commodity? Where is the improvement in the general cultural level of society? Where, in short, are all of the efforts that goes into reducing the actual socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power, not just reducing the workers wages? Is capitalism just pure political manipulation and off-shoring?
But, Lebowitz is not actually trying to explain how the capitalist increases the extraction of surplus value. As we shall see, he is just covering his ass politically for the ugly and inconvenient truths that come next. This requires he say something about racism and patriarchy which have nothing to do with the capitalist relation itself. But, for now, Lebowitz is the tour guide and we must stay on the bus until we get back to the hotel.
So, back to the topic—how is it that this continues? What keeps capitalism going? How is such a system reproduced?
First, in Marx’s theory, it turns out it is not at all clear to the worker she is being exploited after all, or, at least, this exploitation is not a deal breaker when it comes time to sell her labor power. Indeed, she might be exploited, but this comes with the job description so to speak — she gets so much of the product of her labor, her boss gets the rest. If she doesn’t like the terms of the trade it’s her fault — either she didn’t make sure that her labor power was of a quality demanded in the market place, or she decided to major in Elizabethan literature, or she decided she really didn’t need a union after all, or she voted for Scott Walker, because, clearly, Obama is a Marxist. Whatever the reason, according to Lebowitz:
On the face of it, in short, there is no exploitation. Marx was very clear on this point—the very way that wages are expressed as a wage for a given number of hours extinguishes every trace of exploitation—“all labour appears as paid labour.” This disappearance of exploitation on the surface, he noted, underlies “all the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production”. Note that it is not only the capitalist who will tend to think there is no exploitation; it is also the worker. If that’s the case, when workers struggle, they are struggling not against exploitation but against unjust wages or working conditions—they are struggling for a better wage or shorter day, for what they see as fairness: a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
In other words, in Marx’s theory, the wage relationship is produces an entire ideological structure wherein BOTH worker and capitalist agree there is no exploitation. If this is, in fact, true, what was all that bullshit Lebowitz said earlier about “the use of racism and patriarchy to divide workers”? Why would there be any reason to divide workers, when, as a class, they have no trouble with the existing state of society and are only concerned to be the lucky bastard who is successful in selling his labor power? Even when the workers struggle against the capitalist, “they do not see themselves as challenging the system, only some of its unfair results.”
Second, in Marx’s theory, it turns out that the worker does not see the accumulation of capital as the result of her activity, her exploitation. The wealth appears to come, not from her labor, but from the machinery and technical conditions of labor, personified in the capitalist. The results of the worker’s own labor appears to be the result of the activities of the capitalist:
The more the system develops, the more that production relies upon fixed capital, on the results of past labor which take the form of capital—the more that capital (and the capitalist) appear to be necessary to workers. It is no accident, in short, that workers would see themselves as dependent upon capital.
Since exploitation is hidden and increasingly mystified there is a strong bias to reproduction of capitalism itself — it increasingly is seen as the natural mode of life of society, not an imposition on society. Capital becomes, not just some alien thing standing outside of us, but the material precondition for the ways we make our lives.
Third it turns out that not only does it appear to the worker that she is dependent on capital for her existence, she actually is dependent on capital for her existence. According to Lebowitz:
… society does not only appear to be dependent upon capital and the capitalist for all advances. As individuals within capitalist relations, workers really are dependent on capital to meet their needs. As long as they are separated from the means of work and need to sell their ability to work in order to get the money to buy the things they need, workers need the capitalist, who is the mediator between them and the realization of their needs. For the wage-laborer, the real tragedy is not the sale of her labor-power; it is the inability to sell it. What can be worse for one who must sell a commodity than to find no buyer? Workers, it appears, have an interest in the health of capitalists, have an interest in expanding demand on the part of capitalists for their labor-power—by education, tradition, and habit, they come to look upon the needs of capital as self-evident natural laws, as common sense. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers requires the reproduction of capital.
The upshot of these three points is that, over time, the workers are increasing materially dependent on capital for their survival; they become increasingly aware of this dependence, and this dependence increasingly appears as a natural attribute of their existence. Capital produces a class of laborer who are completely at home within its relations of production. Lebowitz quotes Marx, who writes that the capitalist can “rely on his [the worker’s] dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them”
It would be an understatement to say this argument by Marx seems quite pessimistic for the Marxist project — Marx, whose name is irreversibly linked to communism, seems to be making a convincing argument for why communism is impossible. This argument suggests capitalism naturally reproduces the conditions for its own existence — and Lebowitz is more than a little uncomfortable and defensive about the conclusions that must necessarily follow. He tries to head off the accusation that capitalism “delivers the goods.” In order to extricate himself from Marx’s uncomfortable truths about the reality of capitalist relations of production, Lebowitz employs the Marxist get out of jail free card: Somehow capitalist crises will trigger a change in working class consciousness and bring it to an awareness of the need to get rid of capitalism:
Well, you might say that I’m presenting a rather distorted picture of capitalism. That I’m making it seem as if capitalism is a system without contradictions, a stable economic system that delivers the goods. What about economic crises? Doesn’t capitalism inevitably come up against crises, crises inherent in its nature? Some people predict the collapse of the system once a week. I don’t think too much of arguments that suggest that the permanent crisis of capitalism began in the hour of its birth. But, the system does have crises—periods in which profits fall, production drops, people are unemployed. Don’t those crises demonstrate that a new system is necessary?
Without question, an economic crisis brings the nature of the economic system to the surface. When there are unemployed people, resources, machinery, and factories—and at the very same time people with the need for those things that could be produced—it is pretty obvious that production in capitalism is not based on human needs but, rather, only on what can be produced for a profit. This is a time when people can be mobilized to question the system.
Tell that dumb shit to the victims of Auschwitz, because I am not buying it myself. Really, you fucking Marxists have to stop banking on crises to trigger your non-existent class conscious worker — it ain’t happening. And Lebowitz also knows it ain’t happening; so he tags on this caveat:
However, so long as people continue to think capital is necessary, then the solutions they look for will not be ones which challenge the logic of capital. (The same will be true in the case of the environmental crises that capitalism produces.) So long as they see capital as the source of jobs, the source of wealth, the source of all progress, then their answer will be that they don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Bravo! Well fucking stated. Those words should be tattooed on the eyelids of every fucking Marxist, so they can memorize them in their sleep — the material dependence of the working class on the existing structure of production cannot be overcome by a well written tract exposing capital as a system of exploitation. (Which, of course, implies Marx never intended that Capital would serve merely as such an expose’.)
So, we return to our question—what keeps capitalism going? How is capitalism reproduced as a system? I think you can see the answer that I am offering: capital tends to produce the working class it needs. It produces workers who look upon it as necessary—a system that is unfair, one that requires you to struggle constantly to realize your needs, a system run by people out to get you, yet a system where the reproduction of capital is necessary for the reproduction of wage-laborers. What keeps capitalism going? Wage-laborers. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers is necessary for the reproduction of capital.
The proletarian is not just the premise of capital, it is its special product and condition for its continued functioning. Lebowitz concludes that capital can live without racism, without patriarchy, without national and ethnic divisions but it cannot live without wage slaves. However, despite all he has written thus far, Lebowitz interprets this to mean the working class must somehow acquire a class consciousness of its situation:
What capital cannot live with, however, is a working class that both understands that capital is the result of exploitation … and is also prepared to struggle to put an end to that exploitation
Bizarrely, despite all he has said in the preceding words, Lebowitz is still banking on the sudden appearance of a working class capable of overcoming the mystification and material dependence embedded in its own existence. How might such a class make its appearance? Well, the traditional answer has been the vanguard party, but we all know how that turned out. Moreover, as Lebowitz argues, even if such a party emerged, it would essentially be delivering “messages from the outside … a scenario for inevitable irrelevance and isolation.” Which is to say, the message this party delivered to the working class would be in sharp contradiction to the class’s own empirical circumstances.
Just imagine trying to convince your co-worker that she is being exploited by a relation she finds absolutely necessary for her own existence — her job. It ain’t gonna happen and even is you do manage to put it into her head, she still need the damn job. I would rather spend my days trying to convince a born-again christian that Christ doesn’t exist, never existed and the bible is a just a collection of myth stories; while the christian is on his knees praying to Jesus to save the life of his only child.
So Lebowitz proposes what he thinks is a possibly more productive variation of the Marxist approach:
Let me propose, however, that the picture is not necessarily as bleak as it seems. Workers are not simply the products of capital. They are formed (and form themselves) through all the relationships in which they exist. And, they transform themselves through their struggles—not only those against capital but also against those other relations like patriarchy and racism. Even though these struggles may take place fully within the confines of capitalist relations, in the course of engaging in collective struggles people develop a new sense of themselves. They develop new capacities, new understandings of the importance of collective struggle. People who produce themselves as revolutionary subjects through their struggles enter into their relations with capital as different people; in contrast to those who are not in motion, they are open to developing an understanding of the nature of capital.
Can I just say at this point, Lebowitz has no fucking idea what he is talking about; he is just mindlessly regurgitating “Leftist” gibberish that is so moldy it has grown hair and legs. When he argues that in the course of struggle, we “develop new capacities, new understandings of the importance of collective struggle,” he is just making a leap of faith typical of generations of starry-eyed young communists who just had their first study session on the Communist Manifesto. A few months ago I read the lamentations of a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who, reflecting on 40 years of experience as a communist activist, confessed that years of struggle in the coalfields produced exactly one recruit.
In our ten year project in the U.S. coalfields (in the 1970s) — we only recruited one person who was a native coalminer (while we worked closely with dozens, even hundreds of men and women over the years). He was unusual in that he had left the coal fields and worked with the farmworkers union in California etc. — and so had become opened to a large world of ideas and organizing outside the immediate world of the coalfields. But years later I went back to West Virginia, and met with him (and many other people) on a trip — and he said to me, “I wanted socialism and I wanted to wage the class struggle — but really 80% of what the party was talking to just went by me. I had no idea what all that was about, or why it mattered.”
I have no idea whether this story is true or not, but this implies a very low retention rate. How many in the Occupy movement will actually acquire a communist consciousness necessary for the overcoming of capitalism? Even these struggles, Lebowitz argues, only open people to understanding the nature of capitalism — they do not as a rule carry the consciousness of the individual worker beyond it. Lebowitz thus is forced to come up with a solution to this problem:
For those within the grasp of capital, however, more is necessary than simply to understand the nature of capital and its roots in exploitation. People need to believe that a better world is possible. They need to feel that there is an alternative—one worth struggling for. In this respect, describing the nature of a socialist alternative—and analyzing the inadequacies and failures of 20th century efforts—is an essential part of the process by which people can be moved to put an end to capitalism.
Really? This is his solution? Does Lebowitz really believe people will be convinced by a description of “the nature of a socialist alternative—and analyzing the inadequacies and failures of 20th century efforts”? Does Lebowitz really think the social revolution is a matter of education and self-criticism? I can say I am not impressed by a proposal that suggests all the material and ideological advantages of capitalism — not to mention all of its political and economic advantages — can be overcome by educational efforts and self-criticism of a tiny stratum of revolutionaries.
I don’t know, call me skeptical.
I have an alternative proposal, one the takes all those material, ideological, political and economic advantages of capitalism into account. It begins with the premise that people never come to see capitalism as a system to be overthrown, but overthrow it anyway precisely because they are completely dependent on social labor and cannot survive without it. The problem with the existing strategy of the “Left” is that it presupposes the mass of workers would reject capitalism if only we could somehow clearly and graphically communicate its nature as a political-economy to at least the most advanced members of the class. There is, in fact, nothing in the historical record to suggest this is true. Nor is there, at least in Marx’s theory, a theoretical argument for this nonsense.
From the beginning of his writings, starting at least with the German Ideology, Marx assumed the working class had no beef with capitalism. The entire structure of his theory is founded on the idea — stated as what appears to be an a priori deduction — that the working class as a class — and unlike all other classes in society — has no conflict with the capitalist class as a ruling class. This is already given in his assertion — held his entire life — that this class is the product of the capitalist mode of production and does not have to fight for its existence as a class against the ruling classes.
What both Lebowitz and the working class take as the accumulation of dead labor is actually the necessary and constant expansion of the working class itself as the product of the development of the capitalist mode of production, or the expansion of social labor as the basis for human society. And in this process capital is only as a transitional mode of production, as the continuous and necessary expansion of the conditions of social labor.
As Lebowitz argues, “Fixed capital, machinery, technology, science—all necessarily appear only as capital.” But there is that goddamn word again, “appear” — it should be an immediate cause for every Marxist to say, “Aha! It necessarily appears as capital!” Marx never use the word appears unless he is telegraphing that this appearance is misleading. This, at least, is my conclusion. I could be wrong about this, but I can’t find a place where he is using it in any other sense.
So when Marx states,
The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital
He is stating this appearance is completely misleading — these are attributes of the working class alone, i.e., attributes of the social producer who is completely at home in social production. It is not just that labor is the source of them all, these become more or less functions taken over by the class itself. Marxists think they have made some great discovery when they finally get it through their heads labor is the source of wealth — thus Lebowitz announces with almost childlike enthusiasm,
What is capital? It is the workers’ own product which has been turned against them, a product in the form of tools, machinery—indeed, all the products of human activity (mental and manual).
He states this as if it was some recent discovery confirmed by the empirical data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was NOT “the central message that Marx was attempting to communicate to workers.” Marx did not care one whit about the dead labor tied up in machinery, plant and equipment. He was explaining how capitalism was creating a class of individuals completely at home within directly social labor. Marx was making an argument that the capitalist class was the obstacle to the most rapid development of both social labor and the social laborer, and an obstacle to the rapid improvement in the productivity of labor that puts an end to the material necessity for labor and the division of labor. The working class was, by contrast, the true inheritors of what capitalism produced. To put it another way, if capitalism is a transitional mode of production, it is in transition to a form where the working class undertakes its own reproduction directly as a single global act of production and has assumed all the functions bound up with this act with the aim of ending necessary labor once and for all.
The question is not how the “Left” can move the working class “to put an end to” this process — that, based on Lebowitz’s own examination of Marx’s assumptions, is a pipe-dream of 20th Century Marxism and the rest of the silly “left”. The question is how the working class can accelerate this transitional stage of history and complete it quickly and without all the agonies of the capitalist mode of production.
In Greece, for instance, we are confronted with a situation where capital is being compelled to kill the nation state, and the “left” is heroically (and stupidly) trying to save it from oblivion. The question is not whether the Greece state goes — this is already prefigured in the mode of production itself — but what is to replace it? It was dead the moment it adopted the euro; and it was dead even if it never adopted the euro. The perfection of the world market must put an end to nation states, and we should be trying to accelerate this process.
In 1848, when Marx wrote the Communist manifesto he put forth a program which declared the aims of communists if the working class took power. The interesting thing about that 10 point program is that it sought, in his words, to “increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” Even the expropriation of the propertied classes was not seen as an end in itself, but undertaken as “means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.” Marx clearly was not at all preoccupied with ending capitalist rule as some aim in itself, but with doing exactly what capital was already doing more rapidly and without the catastrophes and agonies of capitalist development. Far from imagining lifeless capital as something that would be “ended”, these productive forces, on which the worker depended for her very existence, were to be appropriated by the workers and even more rapidly developed.
Yes, capitalism cannot survive without wage slaves, but the social producer can survive without capital — this is the vulnerability inherent in the mode of production. It was the capitalist and capitalist relations of production that stood in the way of the most rapid development of social labor. In Marx’s argument, the social revolution was bound up with the historical movement already underway; it was not at all primarily a “process by which people can be moved to put an end to capitalism.” Yes. The capitalist has to go, but this is not the point — they are after all just a tiny handful of thugs and parasites. The real point is that the transition toward the abolition of labor had to be completed as rapidly as possible. The point of the working class seizing power was to put an end to itself as a working class — and not in some Hegelian sense, but really and materially by putting an end to the need for labor!
This is what appears nowhere in Lebowitz’s paper, nor in the program of Syriza in Greece or any other faction of the so-called Left. The question is not how the working class can put an end to capitalism, but how it can do everything capitalism is doing without capitalism. And frankly that isn’t very difficult, considering the capitalist does nothing anymore beyond speculating in the financial markets. All of the actual functions of the capitalist have been assumed by the fascist state and it supporting managerial stratum; and most of these functions can be reduced to one simple imperative: continuous expansion of the total labor time of society.
The point is not to “put an end to capitalism” — whatever that nonsense phrase even means — but to free directly social labor from the fetters and agonies of capitalist relations of production and put an end to the working class.
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