Kurz and the dead end of Statist Marxism
I am reading Robert Kurz’s “Anti-economics and anti-politics: on the reformulation of social emancipation after the end of ‘Marxism'”.
It appears to me, at first glance, that this 1997 piece is a continuation of his 1995 prediction of a devaluation shock that would bring an end to capitalism. As I stated in my reading of that work, I found it inexplicable that Kurz did not take his analysis to its logical conclusion. That analysis pointed to hours of labor as the central problem of our time and the only real solution to the capitalist crisis. However, Kurz did not go there in his 1995 work, but made an attempt to nail down how to “supersede” capital in this 1997 piece.
I am going to take on section 1 of Part One today, which focuses on the failures of mainstream Marxist praxis at the turn of the century.
In examining this section it will be clear that things have hardly changed since Kurz wrote this essay. The failure of mainstream Marxism’s critique, Kurz believed, was that it was marginalized, sectarian, self-isolated and incapable of theoretically expressing an historical initiative in the social revolution. There is, along with this mainstream Marxism, a minority current composed of various diverse elements which also appear to be dead ends.
These currents have one thing in common: they remain silent on the issue of overcoming the categories of capitalist reproduction. This failure is expressed as a formula wherein they simply proclaim themselves against capitalism, and leave the issue of what comes next as something that can be established only after capitalism is overthrown. All the details of managing a vast economy straddling the entire planet is left to this new period, where capitalism no longer freely reigns.
I think we could sit these guys in a room with @KirsteninMT for a day, and let her vet them with detailed questions of an engineer’s mind.
Kirsten: “So, how do you propose to move chairs from Malaysia to Topeka?”
Kirsten: “How will you know how much iron ore to move from Australia to Brazil”
Kirsten: “How do you intend to track, and dispose of, the nuclear material in a demilitarized USA?”
Kirsten: “How will you figure out how many b-cup brassieres, or pairs of size 16 men’s shoes, or gallons of home fuel, are need in Columbus, Ohio in the next quarter?”
By the end of this withering questioning, i would imagine most Marxists will have dissolved into a mass of trembling anxiety. Kurz argues overcoming capitalism is not just a technical problem to be addressed after the capitalist class has been expropriated. Instead, it is also a question of overcoming social relations and consciousness that are structured by value. Social production really is regulated by the commodity form. People do not have a consciousness determined by capitalist relations one day, and become communist citizens the next. And you cannot suspend the process of a revolution in social consciousness until the day after capitalism no longer exists. Says Kurz:
“the movement of radical critique and social emancipation from the capitalist creed is only susceptible of being understood by means of a particular project of conceivable “voluntary change”, since social negation and mediation would otherwise be impossible. And this project cannot by any means remain suspended in the form of a moral or metaphorical indeterminacy until some “D-Day”, without penetrating the theoretical structure in the form of concrete definitions.”
It is, Kurz argues, impossible to separate the demise of capitalism from the transcendence of capitalism relations by a new society founded on non-capitalist relations. Capitalism give rise to a potential that is expressed negatively in its own demise, but this potential must also have positive expression. And this positive expression must act in a different way and be regulated by forms completely different from bourgeois institutions that are determined by value.
However, Kurz gives no reason why this must be true. He just makes the argument as if it is self-evident to any clear thinking person. In fact, I think, Kurz may prove unable to offer any reason inherent in his argument for why this positive expression must be present. Already in this first section of his essay, Kurz is injecting a set of assumptions that have no basis in his critique at all.
The Kurz Fallacy can be stated this way: The potential created by capital that is expressed negatively in its demise, must have a positive expression as well.
I will show that, in fact, Kurz exposes this fallacy in his own examination of the epoch of the rise of the bourgeois class, which is taken from Marx’s German ideology. But, later.
For now, Kurz argued the technical problems posed by the collapse of capitalism can in no way be resolved in the opening moments of the new society. Even if they could be solved in theory, the transition to their practical solution remains daunting. The relevant question to this dilemma, Kurz argued, must be must be found within the existing process of capitalist socialization. Communists must find a breach within capitalist relations itself that points to a path of social emancipation.
The old Marxism of the 20th Century, Kurz explains, subordinated everything to the question of seizing state power, which seizure would becomes a lever of emancipation by inverting capitalist relations. Since this political argument already assumed capitalism’s demise, it is obvious why the problem of the reproduction of capitalist relation no longer appeared to be a problem. Struggles within the existing relations of production, in this view, were no more than an “introduction” to the real movement, which real movement only begins with capitalism demise. Kurz state the result of this critique:
“…the question of power in the positive sense, as a question of the establishment of an alternative state force, is also restricted to the (“political”) sphere of bourgeois socialization.”
The question of value (that is, society organized around the production of commodities) is left mystified as a set polar opposites: means versus ends, reform versus revolution, that daily struggle over wages versus program. To clarify what Kurz means by the mystification of value, we have to substitute the term “value” with the phrase “socially necessary labor time”.
“As a result, value is not clarified, but transformed into a neutral, ontological object.”
we can substitute:
“As a result, socially necessary labor time is not clarified, but transformed into a neutral, ontological object.”
Which is to say, wage labor becomes “socially necessary” no matter its substantive or material content; the only struggle within this bourgeois paradigm is how the resulting social product is to be distributed. Says Kurz:
“The critique of value within the context of the not-yet superseded Marxism of the workers movement—that critique which abdicated its own concretion—was forced to swim, directly or indirectly, in these political waters and, for that very reason, remained esoteric and non-existent as a critique of value.”
Marxism, in its diverse 20th Century forms, could not supersede capitalism theoretically except by means of some future political event: “the revolution”. This emancipation was the promise of an imaginary future; while, as a practical matter, all actual struggles remained within the limits of bourgeois politics. Kurz explained:
“The idea of a politically centered inversion—and, for that reason, an abstract one—in the political heaven, instead of on the socioeconomic earth, was identical to confinement in the fetish form of the bourgeois mode of socialization.”
Which is to say, the aim of a political revolution is identical remaining chained within the bourgeois mode of production. Kurz’s accusation recalls Bakunin’s own argument against Marx. This, Kurz argues, is a necessary conclusion, since a political aim is only the continuation of the bourgeois political revolution itself. Kurz, in what appears to be a restatement of Marx, shows how the class and its relations of production formed within the old society long before it emerged full blown in the form of the bourgeois state.
“The embryonic socioeconomic forms of capitalism underwent a long period of development while the “parallel and superior” feudal power was still dominant. When “the feudal husk was cast off” in the bourgeois revolutions, bourgeois sociability under the form of the commodity was already practically established: not only indirectly, as a useless political form, but directly and positively, as a real form of socioeconomic production. The political movement did not precede the new form of reproduction, as an expression of an abstract symbolic will; to the contrary, it was the secondary consequence of the new form of reproduction, its necessary phenomenal form.”
The Marxism of the 20th Century merely assimilated bourgeois political form, and had no material relations with which to give this form a new content. The politics proposed by 20th Century Marxism could not base itself on an already existing set of relations that are non-bourgeois. Kurz concludes this Marxist political activity was no more than a subsidiary branch of the bourgeois revolution itself.
This, I think, completely coincides with Marx’s own argument in the German Ideology as I described it in an earlier post, “My May Day Post: The Marxist Academy and the Myth of “Working Class Consciousness”. The problem, however, is that Kurz doesn’t appear to understand the proletariat is the product of capitalism, whose material, non-bourgeois, relations must already be present in embryo within existing society. It is true, as Kurz says, that the bourgeois form cannot possibly correspond to a proletarian social revolution, but this only suggests this social revolution must suffer defeat time and again as long as it is confined to this political form.
What Kurz needs explain, in the following sections of this essay, is why this form necessarily reappears continuously as the necessary form within which the struggle between classes proceeds despite inevitable defeat. Why, in other words, must the struggle between classes appear as a political struggle within the bourgeois state?
To an extent, Kurz in this section can be read as an accusation leveled against Marxism, but this is not the entire explanation. One has to wonder, as I often have, why the proletariat chose Auschwitz. I am not satisfied with any explanation that wants to lay blame for this choice solely at the feet of Marxists. The failure of Marxism in theory only prefigured the more catastrophic failure of the proletariat in practice. The suppression of “antieconomic reproduction” in the form of cooperatives and the like by the “armies of labor” should not have been a surprise, since Marx already predicted their failure — and even the failure of the Soviet Union, China, etc. — well in advance. Above all, what characterizes the proletariat is the homogenous nature and global scope of its activity, that cannot, of necessity be divided up in to its aliquot parts. The proletariat can only realize its emancipation all at once and together; yet, as a practical matter, this activity is entirely divided along every sort of fault line.
In the subsequent sections of his piece, I will look to see how Kurz squares the circle on this paradoxical condition.
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